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Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Overcoming the Liberian nightmare

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

The nightmare is finally beginning to fade for 16-year-old Grace Kerkula. For years she had seen her West African homeland of Liberia degenerate into a dangerous and lawless wasteland where the teenage gunman and his assault rifle reigned supreme. Then the civil war became personal.

Interview by Cynthia Jikpamu

"There had been a frenzy of killing and looting" all over the Liberian capital of Monrovia last year, the young schoolgirl recalls. Finally out-of-control gunmen targeted her family's house. "They threatened to kill us if we did not leave," she said. The family stood by helplessly as the guerrillas looted and then drove her father's car away as war booty.

Even though they had survived six years of increasing mayhem the Kerkula family decided it was finally time to make a dash for freedom. To reach Monrovia's port and a possible refugee ship to freedom they had to run a gauntlet of rampaging gunmen and dangerous checkpoints. It took them a day to cover only a few kilometres, but if the lawless streets were bad, the port was in even more turmoil.

There was one ship named the Bulk Challenge taking on board desperate Liberians attempting to flee to safety. "It became a matter of life or death to get on that ship," Grace said. As quickly as people tried to clamber onto the vessel, they were beaten off by desperate crewmen. "I don't know how I got on," she said, "but it was only later that I realized my mother was not with me. I don't know where she is now or whether she is even alive."

Eventually the ship put to sea but conditions were worse in some respects than on the streets of Monrovia. The vessel was so crowded with hundreds of escapees they were literally forced to sleep on top of each other. There was virtually no food or water. The ship became a maritime outcast as neighbouring countries each in turn refused to allow the Bulk Challenge to dock and unload its human cargo.

As international pressure mounted Ghana finally relented and allowed the dangerously listing ship to dock at the port of Takoradi. After an initial screening Grace was taken to a camp in Senzule in western Ghana. And there, fortune began to smile on the African teenager at last.

She heard about UNHCR's Education Fund for African Refugees launched in June 1996 by High Commissioner Sadako Ogata to provide scholarships for meritorious refugee students at secondary level. UNHCR was able to fund the programme with the 800,000 FF ($155,000) cash grant accompanying the 1995 UNESCO Felix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize awarded Mrs. Ogata and her staff for their work with refugees and in promoting global peace. Most refugee children are desperate to attend school but Grace was one of the few lucky ones able to fight through a mountain of bureaucracy, complete an application form and win a scholarship.

Today she attends the Top Ridge School in Takoradi, the port where she first stepped ashore to safety. "I dream of becoming a nurse one day," she said. Thanks to the scholarship, a little luck and her own stubborn determination to overcome seemingly impossible odds she is well on her way to realizing that dream.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)




UNHCR country pages

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

On July 21, 2004, the final UNHCR convoy from Liberia crossed over the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone with 286 returnees. This convoy included the last of some 280,000 refugees returning home after Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war which ended in 2000. Overall, since repatriation began in 2001, UNHCR has helped some 178,000 refugees return home, with a further 92,000 returning spontaneously, without transport assistance from UNHCR.

UNHCR provided returnees with food rations and various non-food items, including jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats, soap and agricultural tools in order to help them establish their new lives in communities of origin. To promote integration of newly arrived returnees, UNHCR has implemented some 1,000 community empowerment projects nationwide. Programmes include the building and rehabilitation of schools, clinics, water and sanitation facilities, as well as micro-credit schemes and skills training.

UNHCR and its partners, alongside the UN country team and the government, will continue to assist the reintegration of returnees through the end of 2005.

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

Liberia: A Neighbour's HelpPlay video

Liberia: A Neighbour's Help

Alphonse Gonglegbe fled to Liberia with his family a few months ago. He appreciates the help he's been receiving in this land neighbouring his native Côte d'Ivoire.
Liberia: Hurried FlightPlay video

Liberia: Hurried Flight

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled their villages and sought shelter in Liberia. Francis says he ran for his life and now he wants safety and food.
Liberia: Settling InPlay video

Liberia: Settling In

A dozen new shelters are built every day in Liberia's Bahn refugee camp. Eventually there will be 3,000 shelters for some of the many civilians who have fled from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.