Liberian refugees start coming home from Côte d'Ivoire
ZWEDRU, Liberia, Jan. 12 (UNHCR) - With a refreshing drink of cold water in prospect, Agostine Gbaladal, a young Liberian man, sat down in the shade, just inside the border of his native land.
"I can't believe I am finally in my country," he said with emotion, upon returning home after 14 years in exile in Côte d'Ivoire. "I want to conclude my education, Because of the war I interrupted my studies so many times, and now I hope to finish for good and look for a job, which will help me to rebuild my house".
One of 100 Liberian refugees who crossed into Liberia Tuesday on the first UNHCR convoy from Côte d'Ivoire, Agostine lost his father in 1991, when he ran into the bush to escape the civil war that has racked Liberia for most of the last 15 years.
"Welcome home. There is no place like home, and UNHCR is behind you," Jean Paul Habamungu, Field Officer of UNHCR Office in Zwedru, in eastern Liberia, told Agostine and the other returnees
At the beginning of 2004, there were an estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout West Africa. Out of this number, some 6,000 refugees have come home with UNHCR assistance. The refugee agency started facilitating repatriation on October 1, 2004, after peace was largely restored in Liberia. Close to 100,000 Liberians have also made their own way home.
UNHCR convoys from Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia are expected to run twice a week, bringing home 200 people at a time. Refugees are continuing to come home from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Ghana by air and sea.
Tuesday's convoy left Blolequin and Petit Guiglo villages in Côte d'Ivoire and crossed into Liberia at Bahalai, where UNHCR staff, government officials and other aid workers greeted the returnees.
At the Toe Tower transit centre, 10 km from Bahalai, returnees received the first instalment of a four-month WFP food ration, money to get to their home community, and commodities to help survive their first months at home and rebuild their lives.
The returnees were headed for Grand Gedeh and Montserrado counties, areas that not among the six Liberian counties that have so far been declared safe for return by the Liberian government.
However, the returnees say they will feel safer there than in the unrest in Côte d'Ivoire, a country split in two in 2002 by an armed rebellion. UNHCR has a responsibility to assist refugees even if they insist on returning to areas designated as unsafe.
Suzy Zarr, a 34-year-old refugee, was thrilled to come home, despite injuries sustained during the rebel attacks on the Liberian capital, Monrovia, that forced her to flee.
"I was holding my baby in my arms, when rockets began to fall around," she recalled upon her return home. "The sound was deafening and there were blood and cries all around me. But I bless God that I am alive, since others hit in the rocket blasts did not survive to see this day" of homecoming.
Meanwhile, Agostine now wants to be an "ambassador" to his Liberian compatriots still living in Côte d'Ivoire. "I want to tell my fellow Liberians: Come back and all together we can build a new nation."
By Francesca Fontanini in Zwedru, Liberia