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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)

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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

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

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.