Liberian returnees urge displaced compatriots to come home

News Stories, 7 July 2005

© UNHCR/S.Momodu
UNHCR's Henok Ochalla with returnee Fatmata Vannie by her small trading stall in Tahn Town, Grand Cape Mount county, Liberia.

TUBMANBURG, Liberia, July 7 (UNHCR) When Fatmata Vannie left Sierra Leone for home in Liberia a few months ago, she never expected to see again any of the UNHCR staff who had cared for her when she was a refugee. Imagine her surprise when one of them turned up in her village this week.

"I am very glad to see you in my hometown. You are welcome to Liberia," she told Henok Ochalla, the UNHCR field officer in eastern Sierra Leone's Largo refugee camp, where she used to live.

"Look at my house that was destroyed during the war," said Vannie, pointing to a dilapidated structure under reconstruction in Tahn Town, western Liberia. "Nobody will rebuild your home for you when you are several miles away. People must be courageous to return and rebuild their homes."

The returnee, who supports her family through small trading, admitted that the situation at home was challenging but that it was better than life in exile. She was sharing her experience with Ochalla, part of a UNHCR team from Sierra Leone visiting Liberia this week to see how returnees were rebuilding their lives in Grand Cape Mount and Lofa counties.

"We can now sleep and carry out our activities in peace, with no more sounds of guns and bombs," said Arthur M. Konneh Snr, the former chairman of Gondama camp, one of the eight camps currently hosting some 48,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.

He returned home about four months ago and is grateful to UNHCR and its partners for giving humanitarian assistance to refugees and assisting returnees with community empowerment projects such as rehabilitating schools and clinics, and providing water and sanitation facilities.

"As the former chairperson of Gondama camp, I would like to urge our brothers and sisters still in IDP [internally displaced people] and refugee camps to return. Our country needs human resources to move forward," said Konneh.

The children are equally happy to be home. "I am attending the Tahn Community School in Grand Cape Mount county and I am glad to be continuing my schooling in Liberia together with my brothers, sisters and friends," said Joseph Taylor, 16, who returned from Largo camp.

The school he attends runs classes from nursery to junior secondary level and was renovated by UNHCR. His teachers are also former refugees or internally displaced people.

"We reopened the school in January 2005 after some years of closure as a result of the war," said Principal Alfred D. Cooke, who was previously displaced in Monrovia. "We started with 76 pupils, but with refugees and displaced people gradually returning home, we now have over 400 pupils."

The Principal explained that pupils do not pay school fees, apart from 20 Liberian dollars (US$0.35) that parents agreed to contribute towards buying condiments for the dry rations of bulgur wheat, vegetable oil and beans provided by the World Food Programme through the non-governmental organisation, German Agro Action.

"Basically, the children are fed in school, the tuition is free for now, the pupils are assisted with school materials from UNICEF," said Cooke. "We admit any refugee or IDP child who returns home today."

Deputy Principal Steven Kemokai, who was a teacher and the agriculture committee chairman in Gondama camp, said the school will be upgraded to senior secondary level next academic year.

"One of our main challenges in return areas is a lack of teachers," said Kemokai. "UNHCR and its partners are rehabilitating our schools, hospitals and clinics, but most of the teachers and medical personnel are still in IDP or refugee camps, so we are appealing to them to return home."

In a meeting with community elders in Tahn Town, Liberian member of parliament James K. Momo said he was an internally displaced person and urged Liberians to return: "We want our people to return home so they will take part in the reconstruction process of Liberia."

Marious Buga of UNHCR's Tubmanburg office noted, "When we started reintegration operations in mid-2004, life was quite difficult in most return areas. But with UNHCR and other actors assisting communities with projects and assisting with seeds and agricultural tools, it pleases us to see that Liberians are once again rebuilding their lives in peace."

© UNHCR/S.Momodu
A UNHCR-rehabilitated school in Tahn Town, where the teachers are either former refugees or displaced people.

Close to 5,500 Liberian refugees have returned home from Sierra Leone in the voluntary repatriation that started in October last year. Of this number, about 2,338 returnees have returned to Grand Cape Mount county. The team from Sierra Leone is also visiting return areas in Lofa county, from where about 30,000 of the refugees in Sierra Leone hail.

The UNHCR voluntary repatriation operation has so far helped over 23,000 Liberian refugees to return home from regional countries.

By Sulaiman Momodu in Tubmanburg, Liberia




UNHCR country pages

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

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Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

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