Liberia: UNHCR hopes to resume small scale activities
UNHCR is hoping to resume small scale activities in eastern Liberia as soon as possible, following an assessment mission to Harper and Pleebo, near the coast, which revealed encouraging signs that security conditions could be in place for humanitarian agencies to gradually return to this MODEL-held area.
UNHCR pulled out of Harper in March, when fighting between government troops and MODEL, a newly formed rebel group, engulfed the town. After the death of three NGO workers, following an attack in Toe Town, further to the north, on February 28, fighting quickly spread through the whole eastern part of Liberia, initially sending waves of civilians fleeing to Harper and to the neighbouring River Gee county. Humanitarian agencies were forced to suspend their activities there. UNHCR had three offices in eastern Liberia and was assisting some 38,000 Ivorian refugees, 45,000 Liberians returnees and around 15,000 other West African nationals, all of whom had fled the conflict in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.
A new transit centre in Pleebo, some 30 km north of Harper and a refugee camp at Fish Town, on the coast, had just been completed.
Two senior UNHCR staff were part of a UN team that visited the region of Harper and Pleebo on Sunday and Monday - the first such visit in six months - before heading back to Monrovia today. Although Harper itself was in quite a desolate state, the situation was rather different near the border with Côte d'Ivoire, where life seems to have picked up as before.
On Sunday, the team, composed of 15 members from six different organizations, including UNHCR, began exploring the town on foot, and found evidence of widespread looting and destruction - and very few inhabitants. The UNHCR office had also been completely stripped of anything of value, from telecommunications equipment to the generator, windows and door knobs.
The team also visited the Harper Transit Centre, one of three UNHCR sites in the area, and found only about 500 people there, including 200 Liberian returnees wanting to return to Lofa, about 150 displaced Liberians, 100 other West Africans and 50 Ivorian refugees. At one point, the Harper Transit Centre held more than 5,000 people. According to their leaders, many more refugees and returnees are on the border and would return to Harper if food distribution were to restart.
But on Monday, the team encountered a mixed picture as they probed further inland and along the border with Côte d'Ivoire.
Pleebo Transit Centre, just to the north of Harper was completely empty. However, the nearby border town of Pleebo was bustling with life - full of Liberian returnees, women and children. People were travelling in canoes back and forth across the river that marks the border with Côte d'Ivoire, importing food and other goods.
People in the canoes and on the far bank waved at the UN team, apparently very happy to see the UN back in the region.
The team also visited Fish Town, a third site, initially planned for refugees, near Harper. Around 2,700 people are currently in the camp there, including over 800 Ivorian refugees but also 1,200 displaced Liberians, 500 Liberian returnees and 360 people from other countries. The camp remained intact throughout the fighting - possibly because it is small and simple, with not much to loot apart from wooden poles and plastic sheeting.
In general, the security situation seemed relatively good both in Harper itself and in the surrounding region, and local commanders belonging to MODEL, assured the team they could and would guarantee the safety of staff, as well as ensure access to all areas under their control.
Another interagency mission is being planned for Thursday to Gbarnga in northern Liberia. And this weekend, another one will be leaving for Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, with a view to cross the border into Zwedru, a town north of Harper where UNHCR also had an office and transit site.
Contact was established with former security guards from our Saclepea office, also in the east of Liberia near the Guinean border. They reported that Saclepea has so far miraculously not been attacked or looted. Saclepea is situated between the two warring parties, LURD (Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL. There are reportedly still some 350 people (Ivorians, Liberians and third country nationals) in the transit site. Others have reportedly left the camp and remain at the border. Some WFP food that was still on site has been provided to the most needy.