Zwedru, Liberia – Djéwé L’or Gueï was bathing her infant daughter when the explosion of gunfire burst out in her Côte d’Ivoire village in August. She didn’t know who was shooting or why. Everybody just ran.
With her one-year-old girl and two other young children, she bolted one way while, in the confusion, her husband ran another.
Gueï became a refugee when she escaped Côte d’Ivoire and crossed the border into eastern Liberia, fleeing a conflict declared over by her government more than a year earlier.
At Duogee Refugee Camp, Gueï recounted her ordeal. Speaking through a translator, she described how they spent the next five days walking through thick forest, surviving on water and raw cassava, a type of root. On August 18, she reached Duogee and found members of her extended family there – but no sign of her husband.
Since then, delays in registering with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) have prevented her and her three children from receiving monthly food rations. Gueï said for the first time in her life, she’s been reduced to begging.
“She had her own farm and did everything by herself back home,” the translator explained. “She says this makes her think too much. The only thing that she is happy about is she has her life.”
In November 2010, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede that he had lost an election that was internationally recognised as free, fair, and won by his opponent Alassane Ouattara. For the next five months, a civil war claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people, until Gbagbo was finally apprehended in April 2011.
While the world has moved on, some of Gbagbo’s supports have not.
Two incidents received some international attention. On June 8, 2012, seven UN Peacekeepers were killed in a cross-border attack allegedly launched from Liberia. And on August 6, a three-hour battle in the Côte d’Ivoire capital of Abidjan left eight dead.
“I was working with the past government, the government that was led by Laurent Gbagbo. I do not think that I can go back now. I want to remain here in Liberia.“
– Achille Guiro Monhom, refugee
The intermittent violence means Ivorians are continuing to flee across the border to Liberia for safety.
At the end of September, more than 64,000 Ivoirians were living in six refugee camps in Liberia and a number of host communities, according to the UNHCR. While that number is significantly less than 224,000 recorded in June 2011, repatriations have now slowed to a trickle.
In May, 10,300 Ivorians returned, but that fell to barely 1,000 the following month, 239 in July and just 147 in August.
Here to stay
Government officials acknowledge that most of the Ivorian refugees remaining in Liberia are now likely to stay for the foreseeable future.
Thomas Mtaisi is head of the UN Mission in Liberia for Grand Gedeh – one of four Liberian counties that borders Côte d’Ivoire, and houses nearly half of all Ivorian refugees in Liberia. He said before the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, Grand Gedeh had a population of 126,000. After the conflict, that number swelled to more than 201,000.
Mtaisi estimates by mid-September, roughly 30,000 refugees remained in the county.
“That means that a huge number of individuals either went back on their own or were assisted by the UNHCR and partners,” he said. “The group that still remains here, they have those options. But we see them being here for some time.”
Many of the refugee camps are being outfitted with semi-permanent concrete structures, and seeing the establishment of new social services such as clinics and schools. Refugees are also being encouraged to improve basic shelters provided to them by the UNHCR, as well as engage in agricultural activities and trade with nearby Liberian communities.
Achille Guiro Monhon arrived at Duogee with his wife and two daughters when the camp was first established in April 2011. He says his family plans on making Grand Gedeh their new home.
“I was working with the past government, the government that was led by Laurent Gbagbo,” Monhon said. “So I do not think that I can go back now. I want to remain here in Liberia.”
Reporters visited Duogee on the final day of the UNHCR’s monthly food drop – which, as one official warned, is always a “very sensitive thing”. Hundreds of people ran from one line to the next, jostling their way through the various steps that the delivery of rations requires. As the afternoon wore on, a growing number of residents said they had missed out on food for the month.
Every refugee interviewed had complaints about life in the camp, but overall morale was generally positivie.
Monhon stressed while living conditions are not ideal, Duogee is a good fit for many who fled violence in Côte d’Ivoire. The majority of Ivorians living in Duogee came from the border region, and share ethnic ties with the Liberians of Grand Gedeh. “We speak the same language, we understand each other,” he said. “We don’t want to move from this place.”
Consolidation of efforts
At his office in the county capital of Zwedru, Joern Bastian Joergensen, head of UNHCR operations in Grand Gedeh, said Duogee is scheduled to be decommissioned by January 2013.
“It’s a decision made with the government to consolidate the camps,” he explained. “The more camps you run, the more difficult it is, the more expensive it becomes, and the less synergy there will be.”
Joergensen said the idea is for Ivorian refugees in Grand Gedeh to move into one of two camps located on the outskirts of Zwedru, where UNHCR “can provide better services by having camps closer to where we are now”.
“The location of the camps poses a danger for my citizens. The camps are too close to the border. They should not be there.“
– Peter Solo, Liberian official
But not everybody is sympathetic towards the country’s tens of thousands of new residents. Peter Solo, Grand Gedeh’s superintendent, said Liberia is now bearing the cost of a conflict that the president of Côte d’Ivoire lacks the will to resolve. “We think that he [Outtara] needs to increase the sincerity of their reconciliation,” he said.
He complained that since the arrival of the Ivorian refugees, crime has risen by an estimated 5 per cent, commodity prices have skyrocketed, and Liberians living near the border risk being caught in the crossfire of the Ivorian conflict.
“The location of the camps poses a danger for my citizens,” he said. “The camps are too close to the border. They should not be there.”
Standing atop a hill overlooking a vast expanse of UNHCR tents housing some 9,000 Ivorian refugees, camp supervisor Reggie Annald Baryogar outlined plans to increase its population to more than 25,000. He described the place as “permanent”.
At the camp’s central market, a dozen women selling vegetables sat close under a series of umbrellas, hiding from the afternoon’s scorching sun.
“We are fine here,” one said. “I am free and safe.”
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