Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - The year of return in Liberia

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1998

Refugees are going home ... but not as quickly as hoped

By Paul Stromberg

This was supposed to be Liberia's year. In recent decades the country repeatedly ripped itself apart in one of the most brutal civil wars in Africa's history. The bulk of its population has been traumatized, massacred or had fled to neighbouring states and the country itself often appeared on the point of total disintegration. But change has been in the air since last year and many of the nearly 500,000 Liberian refugees living in nearby states were expected to return home in 1998 in the continent's biggest current repatriation programme.

Enormous difficulties lie ahead. On a recent visit to the region, I saw that much of the country remained prostrate from its self-inflicted war wounds. A few huge rubber and coffee plantations have restarted operations, but military checkpoints still dot roads in Monrovia and command intersections in the countryside. Around every corner there is a scene of devestation; another house with its roof missing and once fertile farmland long since reclaimed by the rainforest.

There are few schools or health centres in the interior and returning refugees often try to migrate to the capital, Monrovia, in search of jobs. Many refugees trek back and forth between their villages and their countries of asylum, starting work on their homes while depending on better camp facilities.

A BETTER POLITICAL CLIMATE

Despite this bleak physical landscape, Liberia's political situation has improved immeasurably since the end of the war and presidential elections in 1997, and refugee officials targetted 1998 as a major year of return.

UNHCR shifted its operation from one of 'facilitating' refugee return to actively 'promoting' repatriation at the end of last year and it established a network of offices in main returnee areas. The Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Reintegration Committee assigned two-man teams to even the remotest border regions to help the homecomers.

By June of this year an estimated 50,000 refugees had returned by boat, truck, bus and on foot, mainly from the two largest host countries, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. Liberian officials estimate a further 180,000 people may have 'spontaneously' returned without any official help.

A SLOW START

Officials acknowledge these figures are below target but cite a series of setbacks for the slow start. Certain border crossings in the still volatile region were closed until a few months ago. There has been a dearth of transport for the operation, forcing UNHCR to rent whatever vehicles are at hand and causing many people to wait in camps for help.

One of the most serious problems is that Liberia simply isn't a 'glamour' operation. On a recent visit Assistant High Commissioner Søren Jessen-Petersen voiced his frustration with the situation: "When we first used to talk about the (African) Great Lakes, people were much less interested in the crisis there than in former Yugoslavia. Now, the international community is even that much less interested in West Africa."

The disinterest shows where it hurts most in funding. UNHCR asked for $40 million for its Liberian operations this year, but will probably receive only half that amount.

Shoe-string budgets are nothing new. Liberian refugees were reduced to half-rations as early as 1993 and by 1995 only 'vulnerable' people received any food aid. The donors have their own reasons. Aid budgets are tighter than ever and there are too many good causes chasing too little money. Liberia's chaotic and corrupt history is a major deterrent. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter warned a recent pledging conference "no assistance will be provided if the money is mismanaged" a clear warning to the former guerrilla chief and current President, Charles Taylor.

Donors are watching Monrovia closely for signs that the country has stabilized before they loosen the purse-strings. Refugees in turn are watching the government as well as waiting for international aid before committing themselves wholeheartedly to going back. And in this vicious circle, Taylor's chances of assuring stability depends, at least in part, on the refugees voting with their feet and coming home.

IT COULD HAPPEN HERE BUT....

This slow-motion ballet is in sharp contrast to the return several years ago of nearly two million people to Mozambique. "In Mozambique people came home to nothing after 14 years," says UNHCR deputy representative Kalunga Lutatu. "The Mozambicans stopped our trucks and said 'This is my home' and they were just standing in tall grass." This could happen in Liberia as well, but Lutatu notes one important difference: "In Mozambique we also had the money we wanted" from a generous donor community.

Fatu Cherif is typical of most Liberian refugees who want to go home but remains decidedly cautious about the future. She fled to Guinea in 1991, abandoning a 15-acre coffee and cocoa farm in Lofa County. Her children now attend French-language schools in Guinea. She, like many women refugees, has no husband and her home and farm have been reclaimed by the forest. "What are we going to eat?" she asks a visitor. "Ladies like us, what are we going to do?"

The saddest irony in Liberia's current predicament can be found in Vahun, a nondescript town buried deep in the Liberian forest about eight kilometres from the border with Sierra Leone. The paved highway from the capital peters out, first into a dirt road and then into an almost impassible track which meanders over a series of rickety log bridges. Thick smoke from huge fires set to clear land for planting envelopes the landscape.

More than 50,000 refugees trudged to this inhospitable town of mud and brick houses in the last few months. As I bumped to the location in a four-wheel drive vehicle I met a UNHCR field officer named Girman, busily at work with a crew of several dozen locals, digging ditches and berms alongside the track with shovels and a pair of wheelbarrows in preparation for the forthcoming rainy season. Normally, roads like this are abandoned during the season of heavy deluges, but if the new arrivals are to be adequately cared for, the track is their only link with the outside world and it must be kept open.

These refugees, however, were not Liberians returning after years in exile. They were Sierra Leoneans fleeing from the latest atrocities in that country.

The situation was full of both bitter irony and hope. The Sierra Leoneons were seeking safety in what was already one of the world's poorest and ravaged countries, whose own infrastructure had been destroyed in another war and which is still trying desperately to rebuild itself and welcome back hundreds of thousands of its own people. The Sierra Leoneons presence put another major burden on a nation least able to handle it and overshadowed its own refugee return programme. But the situation did also underscore the willingness of this desperately poor nation to help another downtrodden people.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)