Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - So close, yet so far

The agony of six years of civil war is evident everywhere in Liberia, even in the heart of the war-ravaged capital, where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people try to survive in the midst of continuing violence, poverty and disease.

The agony of six years of civil war is evident everywhere in Liberia, even in the heart of the war-ravaged capital, where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people try to survive in the midst of continuing violence, poverty and disease.

By Francis Kpatindé

Surveying the gutted, bullet-scarred building in downtown Monrovia that he and 1,500 other displaced Liberians must at least temporarily call home, Maurice D. Leaye says he feels like a foreigner in the heart of his own country.

"Look at the conditions people must live in here," he complains. "There is no water, no electricity, not even sanitation. A real pigsty. Look at our children! They're undernourished and sick, but they don't get any medical care. It seems as though the whole world has forgotten us."

The 35-year-old Leaye has lived in the filthy, ramshackle building in the centre of Liberia's capital for the last five years. Like thousands of his fellow citizens, Leaye had to suddenly leave his home in Grand Geddeh county on the Liberian-Ivorian border to escape fighting between the rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, and the forces loyal to former President Samuel Kanyon Doe. After trekking several days through forests and rubber plantations, he arrived in Monrovia, which was under the control of ECOMOG, the West African peace-keeping force.

Maurice D. Leaye may well be a Liberian, but he soon found that it doesn't count for much these days, not even in the capital. He had no friends, no relatives, no connections. In the end, Leaye landed along with many hundreds of other displaced people in Libyan House, a miserable, nine-story blue and white building on Pan Africa Plaza, facing Monrovia City Hall. "The majority of the people living here are children," explained Leaye, who this day served as spokesman for the 1,500 all-but-forgotten people trying to survive in Libyan House. "Except for the emergency rations that were handed out just once at the very beginning, we have received practically nothing since 1991."

Mariama Dorley's husband and one of her children were murdered by rebels. Unable to cope, the 34-year-old Dorley gathered up her scanty belongings one night in May 1994 and walked, with her five remaining children, the 75 kms from her native village, Tubmanburg, to the capital. Since then, she has been living with her family in Zuanah Town, a huge camp on the outskirts of Monrovia where Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians live side-by-side. "I am waiting for peace to return in order to go home," she says.

Moses B.D. Horace was a civil servant in the Gbarnga region until 1992, when the rebels stormed into the area, killing and looting everything within reach. After a harrowing, weeklong trek, Horace, his wife and their eight children ended up in the four-storey "MoH" building in the Congo-Town district of Monrovia. Once the headquarters of the Ministry of Health, the building has now been transformed into a shelter for 5,000 refugees and displaced city dwellers. Despite its name, there is nothing healthy about the building - it provides nothing but a roof. "There is nothing to eat here, nothing good to eat," Horace explains. "I sleep on the bare floor with my children and it breaks my heart to see them fading away, without a crumb to eat."

In the last few years, many thousands like Maurice D. Leaye, Mariama Dorley and Moses B.D.Horace, have poured into Monrovia. Most, like 70-year-old Fallah Johnson, lost everything in flight. Johnson, from Lofa county on the Liberian-Guinean border, said his family was massacred by armed groups who also burned down his house and everything in it. Barely scraping by since 1992 in the MoH, he hopes only to live long enough to once again see his native region and those friends who have somehow survived the tragedy of Liberia's brutal civil war.

Like the 750,000 Liberian refugees who managed to flee to Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the troubles of Liberia's internally displaced began in December 1989, when the NPFL rebels took up arms to overthrow the regime of Samuel K. Doe. Caught in the crossfire, many civilians had no option but to head for neighbouring countries - especially Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea - or to the capital, which was considered a safe haven once the ECOMOG troops had established control there in 1990. Subsequently, factions proliferated, essentially along ethnic lines, and anarchy reigned, forcing an ever-increasing number of Liberians to flee first to Monrovia and then on to the neighbouring countries.

The pre-war population of Monrovia was estimated at 500,000. With the massive inflow of displaced persons, it has practically tripled in six years. "The greatest concentration of displaced persons is found in Monrovia and its outskirts," said Kallu Kalumiya, UNHCR's representative in Liberia. "There are also displaced persons in other areas such as the villages of Buchanan, Kakata and, until recently, around Tubmanburg."

UNHCR's office in Liberia, which opened in 1991, estimates the total number of displaced persons at around 1.2 million, of which 800,000 are in Monrovia or its suburbs; 110,000 in Margibi county, near the capital; 82,000 in Grand Bassa county (whose main city is the port of Buchanan); 80,000 in Cape Mount county, on the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border; and 56,000 and 40,000 respectively in Bong and in Bomi counties.

In the capital, some 150,000 displaced people were fortunate enough to have moved in with relatives. But the majority of newcomers end up in the suburban refugee camps or are crammed into buildings like the MoH or the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs office on Tubman Avenue, Monrovia's main thoroughfare. According to UNHCR staff at a camp in Samukai Town, on Monrovia's outskirts, only 12 percent of the 7,000 persons receiving assistance in the camp are displaced persons - the rest are refugees from Sierra Leone. And at the MoH, there are as many Sierra Leonean refugees as displaced persons. On the other hand, in a former Masonic Temple converted into a makeshift shelter, all 300 residents are displaced persons.

"Nobody pays any attention to us. We aren't as lucky as the Sierra Leonean refugees who are taken under the UNHCR's assistance. We have to fight for survival on our own," asserts Jack Freeman, who lives with his entire family in one of the derelict outbuildings of the white-marble temple. The building was plundered in the violent aftermath of Doe's macabre execution in 1990.

As with internally displaced populations in many parts of the world, most of Liberia's IDPs are, unfortunately, very much on their own. UNHCR has been in the country to help refugees and to map plans for a long-awaited return of those who fled the country. But funding even these mandate activities is difficult, particularly in view of the renewed violence in Monrovia in April, which resulted in the looting of many aid agency offices - UNHCR's included - and the evacuations of some staff members. "No international humanitarian agency has a specific mandate to care for displaced persons," explained Kalumiya, UNHCR's representative in Liberia.

In fact, a distinction can be drawn between the autonomous displaced persons scattered around the city and their displaced counterparts who live in refugee camps like Samukai Town or "VOA-1" and "VOA-2" (thus designated because they are located in the vicinity of the old premises of the Voice of America). Totally on their own, the life of an autonomous displaced person is a daily struggle for survival. Like Jack Freeman, they are destitute, show symptoms of malnutrition, and are prey to the cholera and yellow fever epidemics that frequently sweep this country that after six years of civil war has practically no sanitation infrastructure left. Without schooling, displaced youngsters wander the main streets of the city late into the night - despite the curfew - in search of a pittance.

But those displaced persons who live side-by-side with the Sierra Leonean refugees, on the other hand, suffer hardly any discrimination at all. Like the refugees, they have access to schooling and medical care and they receive food supplies and limited amounts of equipment. They live in such close proximity to the refugees that UNHCR and its partners are constrained to help them, in part to avoid tensions between the groups.

Nevertheless, these "fortunate ones" who live in the refugee camps depend on real inter-agency cooperation and on the assistance of the NGOs for their survival. The World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organization supply food for the displaced Liberians. UNICEF provides water supplies, as well as education and infant vaccinations. The World Health Organization contributes preventive medicine and health care services. UNHCR adds its expertise in the areas of agriculture and education, and occasionally provides equipment. Several local and foreign NGOs collaborate as well. These include MSF-Holland, MSF-France, AICF, ADRA and the Liberian Red Cross.

Despite the hardships, many of the displaced choose not to live around the refugee camps, preferring instead to seek work in the city.

In a few other situations, UNHCR has provided what aid it can to displaced people as well as refugees in Liberia. In December and January, for example, about 13,000 IDPs flooded into the city along with 1,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who were fleeing fighting between ECOMOG troops and rebels of the ULIMO-J faction. UNHCR made no distinction between refugees and displaced persons in the distribution of emergency aid to these people. But only lasting peace will end the tragic plight of Liberia's 1.2 million displaced people.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)