Ivorians seek refuge in Liberia

Refugees fleeing the violence in Ivory Coast are braving bandits, hunger and days in the jungle to reach Liberia.

Despite the capture over a week ago of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and widespread calls for peace and calm, reports of violent and bloody attacks on civilians, especially in western regions, continue to flood in.

Numbers of those seeking refuge in Liberia have risen dramatically, placing increasing strain and tension on communities already stretched to breaking point.

Teams from global children's NGO Plan International have visited one village in Grand Gedeh, Liberia which has seen its population swell from 1,800 to 10,400 people. Two-thirds of those crossing are women and children, many fleeing violence and attacks on their homes and communities.

One of the most recent to arrive in one of the villages, Claude, tells his story:

"I was escaping from my village when I saw our school principal get shot by the rebels. I went back and carried him into the bush until he said he couldn't go any further because of the pain. Then I saw a little girl sitting in the bush all by herself. I picked her up and brought her across the river to Liberia with me."

Claude and 5-year-old Monié crossed the river which divides Ivory Coast and Liberia using a narrow canoe. Monié's father is back in the Ivory Coast and her mother is believed to be in a nearby refugee camp.

This attack is just one of many reported by refugees in recent days, and happened on the morning after the news of Laurent Gbagbo's arrest. "When we walked towards the border, every village we passed was burned down. I can't give you the exact number but it was a lot of villages," says one village chief, James, about his family's flight.

They had left the little luggage they had time to bring on the riverbank when they jumped into the canoe to flee – chased by gunfire. Once they had managed to cross, none of the refugees nor their Ivorian hosts dared sail the 30 metres or so to go and fetch their belongings in fear that the rebels were still hiding in the bushes nearby.

Another refugee, Félicité, arrived in Liberia completely naked, carrying three young children under the age of six. She had walked nearly 150 miles for two weeks through the forest to escape the fighting in Ivory Coast. On the way, she was attacked by bandits. They took everything – even her clothes.

She escaped the violence in Abidjan on a Red Cross truck. From the western town of Daloa, she and her sister set off through the forest on foot, taking their three children with them. Her sister did not make it to Liberia. She was too weak. She is buried in an unmarked grave, somewhere in the forest.

Now Félicité, who is in her early 30s, has her sister's five-year-old daughter to care for, as well as her one-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. She has no idea where their fathers are. In the past month, she has seen several friends and relatives killed in front of her. She and the children are so distressed they can barely speak. 

All along the Liberia border, Plan's teams have met refugee children who could not smile and could not play. They were too shocked by the violence they had witnessed. Most came from villages in the area near Duekoue, the town where hundreds of people are said to have been massacred.  

An estimated 140,000 Ivorian refugees, including thousands of children, have sought shelter in Liberia. Over a million Ivorians are estimated to be internally displaced and thousands are said to have lost their lives in the conflict.

Escaping to Liberia was a long and horrific journey for many. They had to run from gunfire, they saw dead bodies along the route and they were forced to wade through rivers. Some arrived in Liberia, having not eaten anything for days. Others survived on only wild bananas.

"It will take people a long time to feel safe to return to their homes in Ivory Coast and we are expecting more refugees to arrive in Grand Gedeh and neighbouring counties before the situation calms. Many people, however, may not have homes to go to as with families our teams met whose villages had been completely burnt to the ground," said Berenger Berehoudougou, Plan's regional disaster expert, who is currently in Grand Gedeh.

Although the crisis is far from over, there is a need to return as swiftly as possible to normal life in the coming months for the refugees and Liberian communities.

Plan's emergency support programmes will run for at least the next eight months and aims to help over 30,000 people.

Plan International is identifying unaccompanied children that have been separated from their parents during the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire and is helping them to trace their families.

Plan started working in Liberia in 1982 to help children access their rights to education, health and protection.

All photos are courtesy of Plan International.