Potential returnees ask: Will we still have a home in Liberia?
MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 30 (UNHCR) - Liberia is a small country of 3 million people. Freshly emerging from a 14-year war, the country is trying to rebuild itself, depending mostly on foreign aid that has been slow in coming despite pledges by the international community.
Travelling from the capital Monrovia by road to the countryside, one can measure Liberian people's attempts at reconstructing their lives. Along the route to Tubmanburg in Bomi county, the roadside is paved with lush vegetation and sporadic ruins. Further along, hills appear, and people are seen moving freely amid UNHCR trucks. Occasionally, stickers from aid agencies pop up on sign boards, either advocating for peace or advertising their contribution to community projects.
Raouf Mazou, a senior UNHCR staff member who has been involved in the Liberian refugee programme since the early 1990s, shares his impression of the new atmosphere. "Checkpoints have been drastically reduced and the few that remain are orderly," he said, looking out from the moving car. "I am struck by the amount of construction and houses being rehabilitated, and busy markets that contrast so much to the past."
Since the signing of a peace deal in August 2003, Liberia has been gradually returning to peace, supported by United Nations troops deployed throughout the country. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL)'s work focuses mainly on disarmament and security. UNMIL has already carried out the disarmament and demobilisation of 80,000 of the 100,000 former combatants, an undertaking that it hopes to complete by the end of October.
But with peace comes new challenges. The DDRR programme, as the disarmament process is known, has a reintegration component that is key to lasting peace. Liberian refugees in neighbouring countries have been inquiring about progress in that sector, particularly as former combatants have been occupying their property illegally.
The issue of property restitution is a major one for refugees who are considering repatriating. According to local authorities, some refugee family heads have been shuttling between their camps and their villages on a go-and-see basis to check the state of their houses, assess the level of damage, and when they find their property occupied, negotiate the departure of the illegal occupants.
In asylum countries, refugees have often expressed concern about reclaiming their homes upon return.
"Refugees have consistently been asking us about property restitution and although that is beyond our mandate, something has to be done at the central and county levels," acknowledges Zobida Hassim-Ashagrie, UNHCR Deputy Director of the Africa Bureau, during her 10-day mission to Ghana and Liberia to assess the agency's level of preparedness for the regional repatriation operation starting on October 1. "A nationwide campaign of some sort is probably needed and it's time that it starts."
Property restitution is a nationwide concern that is being addressed through housing and property committees, as over 800,000 civilians are on the verge of moving back to their areas of origin, either from camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), or from exile in neighbouring countries, including 340,000 refugees that UNHCR plans to repatriate over a three-year period. These committees are being established throughout all 15 counties to serve as mediating bodies. The committees are currently operating in Bong, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bass and Gbarnga counties.
Illegal occupants are often ex-combatants and IDPs, but it is the ex-combatants who are the most feared. However, they are not adamant about staying in the homes and often negotiate to be allowed to remain on the premises until they get their DDRR pay, which in many instances come later than anticipated.
The mediation process has proven successful so far. In Gbarnga, once the stronghold of former President Charles Taylor, the mayor is a woman who has been very active in mediation.
"We hold frequent meetings with ex-combatants to sensitise them and convince them that they should leave houses that they are occupying illegally in a peaceful manner," explains Gbarnga mayor Esther Walker. "We also encourage them to get involved in skills training to prevent them from returning to arms one day."
The mayor, who says that over 50,000 civilians - including returnees from Guinea and Sierra Leone - have come back to her town in the past few months, stresses that populations should be supportive of demobilised fighters who may never be able to return to their original communities and need acceptance to be reintegrated where they are.
By Fatoumata Kaba in Liberia