Liberian returnees find out it takes more than resilience to remain home
GANTA, Liberia, Aug 25 (UNHCR) - Liberians impatient to return home after 14 years of civil war are finding out that it takes more than resilience to begin a new life in the face of so much destruction, lack of income-earning opportunities and insecurity in some places.
Juliet Massaquoi, a 24-year-old mother of four children, came back to Ganta in northern Liberia's Nimba county two weeks ago. "I came with nothing. My relatives and friends are helping me, but I need food to feed my children," Massaquoi said. Despite the difficulties, she is happy to be home after spending years in a refugee camp in Guinea. "Even if my house is riddled with bullets, I can finally sleep under my roof," she said.
With the departure into exile of former President Charles Taylor on August 11, 2003, the signing of a peace agreement among warring factions a week later and the subsequent deployment of 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops, peace prevails in most parts of the country.
Liberians in refugee camps in neighbouring countries are not waiting for ideal conditions to go back home. "The majority of them are ending up in a camp situation in their own country as conditions are still not conducive for a return in safety and dignity," said Moses Okello, UNHCR's Representative in Liberia.
Refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana host some 350,000 Liberians, some of whom first went there in late 1989 when Taylor began an insurgency against the government of President Samuel Doe that left some 200,000 people dead and forced nearly 1 million from their homes in the ensuing years.
Camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs, in Liberia still shelter around 300,000 Liberians who have been unable to return to their homes because of lack of basic necessities - such as schools, clinics, water and electricity - and insecurity.
Although the main rebel groups - Liberia United For Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) - have joined the transitional government preparing for elections in October next year, they have little control over their men in the field in some areas. In these places, the fighters harass villagers and returnees and exact "taxes".
However, in areas where there is a UN troop presence, life is picking up. People are returning to their homes and rebuilding their lives.
Ganta is one such place. Reconstruction is evident everywhere in Ganta, a bustling commercial centre located 230 km north-east of the Liberian capital of Monrovia, near the border with Guinea. Ganta was heavily damaged in the last stages of the war, when Taylor's troops mounted an offensive against the LURD rebels. In the last few months, following the deployment of peacekeepers in Ganta, residents have begun to return and rebuild the city.
Today, many restaurants, beauty parlours and shops filled with goods brought in from just across the border in Guinea have reopened in Ganta. Outside the town, farm lands have been cleared and planted with rice and maize. In lower Nimba county, Liberians are returning to their homes following the implementation of a disarmament and demobilisation programme and the departure of MODEL fighters.
More than 66,000 former combatants have turned in their weapons under the nationwide demobilisation programme, but the rehabilitation and reintegration phase of the project has moved very slowly. Criminal incidents and occasional reports of looting and abuses committed by ex-combatants have been attributed to the slow implementation of the programme to provide them with jobs.
Former LURD and MODEL fighters wearing NBA jerseys and sneakers and riding motorbikes wander the main frontier crossings, harassing travellers going back and forth, including refugees going home. Customs and immigration officials were recently deployed in some border areas to take charge.
"Security in all parts of Liberia must be conducive and this will allow all of the refugees and IDPs to resettle," UNHCR's Okello said.
With large numbers of Liberians from refugee and IDP camps returning home on their own despite the daunting challenges, UNHCR is launching a programme to facilitate the return of those who wish to repatriate from the camps. Next month, a registration will start in the neighbouring countries under this programme. The first organised convoys are expected to bring home refugees in October.
UNHCR is working closely with other humanitarian actors and the government to prepare the ground for the organised returns and to address properly the needs of returnees. The refugee agency has issued an appeal for $39 million for its operations, but it still has a shortfall of $16 million.
Preparations continue, however. Repair and rehabilitation of land corridors to be used in the repatriation has started. The refugee agency is also undertaking projects to provide water, sanitation, education and medical facilities in returnee areas.
UNHCR, in coordination with local authorities and non-governmental organisations, has also organised seminars and workshops on subjects ranging from reconciliation to income generation and AIDS awareness. In Nimba, the re-establishment of UNHCR's presence in April has given many women the opportunity to learn new vocational skills.
Juliet Massaquoi is one of the more than 50,000 Liberian refugees, mostly women and children, who have returned spontaneously since Taylor's departure and whose needs are being addressed by UNHCR.
"I am tired of the war. I spent my last 10 years fleeing from bush to bush and from camp to camp. Now with four children, I need a stable life," said Massaquoi.