Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Liberia: Shaking off bad memories

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1996

1996 was meant to be a year of promise for Liberia. Instead, it has been a year marked by a renewal of fighting, especially in Monrovia, which was engulfed in a spiral of violence and horror. A new year is beginning. The guns have fallen silent in Liberia. The announced disarmament has timidly begun.

By Francis Kpatindé

It was meant to be a year of promise for Liberia. The Abuja Agreement, signed by the Liberian warlords on 19 August 1995, made provisions for disarming the militias, deploying the mainly Nigerian, ECOMOG troops the West African peace-keeping force throughout the territory, setting up of a skeletal administration in a country devastated by civil war, preparing for the return of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries and organizing free and democratic elections. All that was supposed to happen in 1996.

1996 has just ended. Apart from disarming several hundred fighters, the results have been disastrous. Armed militias still control the area around Monrovia and the back country. The ECOMOG "white helmets" have run into great difficulties in deploying their forces because of insecurity and lack of funds, which the superpowers had promised to contribute. Some 750,000 Liberian refugees are still in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Elections are scheduled for 30 May 1997 "at the latest." Another Abuja Agreement the 13th peace treaty since the outbreak of the conflict has replaced the previous one.

1996 has been a year marked by a renewal of violence, especially in Monrovia, which had until then been considered a haven of peace. The fighting began on 6 April when the provisional authorities tried to arrest the leader of one of the factions, Roosevelt Johnson, who is a suspected accomplice in a murder case.

Starting on 6 April and for several weeks, Monrovia was engulfed by violence and horror. Stores were looted. Offices and warehouses of the humanitarian agencies were sacked, forcing them to evacuate all non-essential personnel. Nothing seemed to stop the spiral of violence. Not even an orphanage was spared. On 30 April armed men assaulted and looted the Vahun Children's Centre, an orphanage run jointly by a local agency and UNHCR, where 75 unaccompanied Sierra Leonean children and some 20 Liberian orphans were sheltered.

The Ministry of Health building that sheltered 1,200 Sierra Leonean refugees and 4,300 displaced Liberians was seized by armed men, who made it their barracks. Refugees and displaced persons fled and ended up crammed in a former UNICEF warehouse that had been looted at the onset of the hostilities and had no water or toilet facilities.

Part of the population sought refuge in the compound of the United States Embassy, protected by American soldiers and located in the residential district of Mamba Point. Thousands of others tried to leave Monrovia, a city at the mercy of drugged teenagers, their bodies wound with amulets in a mad search for invincibility.

In the good old days, Liberia owed its international reputation to its rubber plantations, under the management of the American tire company, Firestone, and especially to its naval convenience flags. In 1996, the "First African Republic," founded in 1847 by a group of emancipated slaves, has given birth to an unprecedented phenomenon in the Gulf of Guinea: boat people. But unlike the Vietnamese and the Somalis, the Liberians were not fleeing from a totalitarian state, but from the absence of a state, from havoc, death and desolation.

After being stripped of their meagre savings 70, at times 100 dollars the most fortunate of them were finally taken on board dilapidated vessels: Bulk Challenge, Victory Reefer, Zolotitsa. But no port would accept their passengers. With more than 2,000 persons on board mostly Liberians, but also some Ghanaians and Nigerians the Bulk Challenge was turned back by Côte d'Ivoire, which has already taken in 350,000 Liberian refugees. Then it was declared non desiderata by Ghana, that already shelters 15,000 of them.

The Victory Reefer was driven out of the territorial waters of Sierra Leone. The Russian trawler, Zolotitsa, with its 450 passengers, suffered the same fate in Ghana, and then in Togo. No one wants to take in the "outcasts of the sea." Epidemics broke out on board the ships. Everything was in short supply food, drinking water, medicine and, above all, breathing room.

On 13 May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, appealed to the West African countries to receive the Liberian boat people. "I am very concerned about the situation of the people aboard these vessels. They have been at sea for some days now. The situation has become desperate. Unless the door is opened to them, a lot of people, many of them women and children, may die."

Then, on 14 May a miracle happened: ten days after the beginning of their odyssey, the Bulk Challenge was authorized to enter the Ghanaian port of Takoradi, where the ship had tried to dock twice unsuccessfully. The passengers were assisted by the local authorities, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, and then taken to the Essipong camp on the outskirts of the city.

In a climate of international protest, the Victory Reefer received authorization to drop anchor in the port of Freetown. And, after wandering the Gulf of Guinea for several weeks, turned back by one port after another, the Zolotitsa made a surprise return to Monrovia, which was still under militia control.

A new year is beginning. The guns have fallen silent in Liberia. The announced disarmament has timidly begun. The enemies of yesterday appear to want to live together again. The Bulk Challenge, the Victory Reefer and the Zolotitsa are no more than bad memories. But, despite such encouraging signs, Liberia is still the third largest "producer" of refugees in the world. Liberia desperately needs the help of the international community to complete the deployment of the ECOMOG "white helmets" throughout the country, to prepare the return of refugees, and to organize, at last, free and democratic elections.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)