In the Carrefour neighbourhood of Duékoué, at the abandoned headquarters of one of the warring militias, I peered down a deep well. No bodies were visible but the smell was unmistakable. No one knows how many bodies lie inside. The grisly work of recovering and identifying the dead lies ahead.
Elsewhere, the extent of the bloodshed is already emerging. In two deadly incidents, the most recent on 28 March, more than 300 people were killed. The Moroccan peacekeepers sent to the site of these massacres have so far counted 255 bodies, but more lie in dense bushes and other inaccessible places. A UN human rights team is also present at the scene, gathering evidence and trying to establish the chain of events.
The picture is not black and white. Information available to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicates that the first incident took place in the area controlled by forces loyal to the now-captured Laurent Gbagbo. The victims were mostly members of the Dioula ethnic group, which has tended to support Gbagbo's rival, Alassane Ouattara, who is widely recognised as the winner of last year's elections and the legitimate president of the country. The second took place in an area under the control of forces loyal to Ouattara, and the victims were mostly Gueré, who tend to support Gbagbo. The dead were found in civilian clothes.
It is not known exactly how many people have died in Abidjan. The UN human rights team in Ivory Coast puts the likely number at more than 400. Dead bodies have not been collected systematically, because of the persisting security risks. Hospitals have run out of many basic medical supplies and food is scarce, leaving many people hungry and afraid. UN peacekeepers used armoured personal carriers to evacuate diplomats and journalists caught in fighting in Cocody, the neighbourhood close to the presidential residence where Laurent Gbabgo made his last stand. Local people had no such escape route.
President Ouattara has said he would do everything in his power to break the vicious cycle of ethnically based violence.
"I will establish a truth and reconciliation commission and ensure accountability of everyone who committed crimes, no matter their political affiliation or ethnicity," he told me last Thursday in Abidjan. "I want reconciliation. I will form a government in which all regions and ethnic groups will be represented." He has since repeated the pledge in public statements.
If the truth about crimes committed since the start of the conflict in September 2002 had been established earlier and perpetrators held to account, perhaps Ivory Coast could have been spared the situation it faces.
An international commission of inquiry was established in 2004, but its report was never made public, nor taken up by the UN security council. Hopefully, that will not be the case this time. The security council has already requested Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to present it with the report of the independent investigation commissioned by the human rights council, and to share it with other international organisations. The report is due by the middle of June, but how many people may have lost their lives by then? Will further retaliation be averted?
With Ouattara assuming effective control of the reins of power following Monday's arrest of Gbagbo, there is renewed hope that the long-suffering people of Ivory Coast will finally see peace. This is by no means assured. Ouattara and other political leaders across the country need to embark, immediately, on the long and difficult but necessary road of accountability but, in doing so, they must avoid any form of retaliation.
Former President Gbabgo must be treated with dignity and, if charged, tried in accordance with international human rights standards. He should not be made a scapegoat: all individuals implicated, no matter their political affiliation, should equally face justice. Truth and justice are prerequisites for reconciliation and sustainable peace.
Ivory Coast is a rich country with strong infrastructure, most of which remains intact. But it will need substantial help from the outside world, both in the form of immediate humanitarian relief and longer-term assistance to jump-start its economy. One hopes that it will not struggle to secure international attention and funding in the face of the upheavals in North Africa and the earthquakes in Japan.
(Author is the U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human rights)