Largest UNHCR convoy since Liberian refugees began returning home

The largest convoy of refugees to return to Liberia since the UN refugee agency's repatriation operation began in 2004 has arrived home in the wake of this month's inauguration of the new democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

UNHCR Field Assistant Bockarie Kallon assists refugees onto trucks in Sierra Leone.   © UNHCR/R.Goldstein-Rodríguez

BLAMA, Sierra Leone, 30 Jan (UNHCR) - The largest convoy of refugees to return to Liberia since the UN refugee agency's repatriation operation began in 2004 has arrived home in the wake of this month's inauguration of the new democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"There is no war, we have a new president," said Tamba Tembe, a 45-year-old refugee from Foyatinga Village in Foya District. "I am going to go and look for my people, and build a small house for my family. The country is free now and I want to go home."

Some 560 Liberians were in the convoy that headed back to Foya District in Lofa County on 21 January. For many, it was their first glimpse of Liberia in several years. Most of the Liberian refugees had fled their country in 2000, escaping the brutal war that plagued Liberia during the rule of Charles Taylor.

The convoy, organized by UNHCR and its partners, was the largest since the start of repatriation in October 2004. The installation of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was inaugurated in a ceremony in January in Monrovia, as well as a year of peace in Liberia, has encouraged refugees to make the decision to return home.

"The high number of refugees who participated in this convoy is further indication of a strong interest in returning home at this time," said UNHCR deputy representative in Sierra Leone, Andrew Mayne. "UNHCR is committed to assisting those refugees who want to go back to Liberia to do so as soon as possible, both in safety and in dignity."

Last weekend's convoy brought the total number of people who have returned home in organized convoys since October 2004 to 6,559. The facilitated return exercise had been suspended from July to November 2005 because of the poor condition of roads and the latest convoy was only the third since the return operation resumed in late December.

It appears that after years in exile, the mood among the refugees in Sierra Leone is changing. Even though conditions in the areas they originally fled remain very challenging, many now feel more ready to go back home.

Young and old joined the convoy. One man was believed to be over 90 years old; one baby was only six months. A pregnant woman who wanted to give birth back home in Liberia luckily was in the period between the fourth and sixth months of pregnancy when travel is allowed.

Convoys now are running each week from Sierra Leone to Liberia, with returning refugees given food and various non-food items of assistance before departure. Upon arrival in Liberia, refugees receive a cash grant so they can proceed to their final destinations. A further two months of food assistance is provided to the returnees inside Liberia and UNHCR is operating programmes to assist with their reintegration into their homeland.

Sierra Leone has provided hospitality to over 60,000 refugees who fled from Liberia since 2000. Its citizens understand well the need for a place of sanctuary as they themselves were forced into exile at various times in the last decade.

Sierra Leone still hosts about 39,000 registered Liberian refugees in eight camps in the eastern and southern part of the country, where they receive UNHCR assistance, while a further 10,000 live in urban areas where they receive more limited help.

By Rachel Goldstein-Rodriguez in Blama, Sierra Leone