UNHCR assists first refugees home to Liberia's Lofa county
VOINJAMA, Liberia, Feb 15 (UNHCR) - In a vote of confidence in Liberia's peace process, the first convoy of Liberian refugees headed home yesterday to Lofa county, the hardest-hit area during the 14-year civil war with the largest-scale displacement.
On Monday, 140 Liberian refugees left Guinea's Kouankan camp for Voinjama, the main town in Lofa county, northern Liberia. Most families in the convoy will continue further east to Zorzor district, where the UN refugee agency has set up a transit facility and rehabilitated seven schools and a clinic. In the area, UNHCR is also involved in the implementation of agricultural and skills training and revolving loan projects aimed at empowering the community.
This first convoy took place almost three weeks after the Liberian government declared Lofa county safe for returns. The start of this leg of the repatriation movement is symbolic of the refugees' confidence in Liberia's peace process as Lofa county was the hardest-hit by war, suffered the most destruction, and was the last place to end fighting and to demobilize. It is also the county that recorded the highest number of forced population displacement during the war and has extremely poor road conditions.
An estimated 34 percent of Liberian refugees and the majority of the half million internally displaced persons are expected to return to Lofa county, which includes the districts of Voinjama, Zorzor, Vahun, Saleya, Foya and Kolahun bordering Guinea and Sierra Leone.
In all, 13 out of Liberia's 15 counties have been cleared for returns. This is expected to boost UNHCR's efforts to increase the pace of repatriation ahead of the rainy season starting around May.
"The start of repatriation to Lofa is yet another indication of the achievements made in returning peace to Liberia," UNHCR Representative in Liberia Moses Okello declared at Tuesday's ceremony at the Guinean-Liberian border. The event was also attended by the government, UN peacekeepers, aid workers and the local population.
"Lofa bore the brunt of the Liberian civil war in terms of large displacement of its population both internally and externally, and destruction of infrastructure. UNHCR is pleased that the people of Lofa can now be assisted to go home and that they will be able to resume normal productive lives as before."
Geographically, Lofa county has the largest surface area of the country with its 88,707 square km of rich and fertile land that positioned it as Liberia's breadbasket before the war.
"Lofa is strategic in Liberia's economy, being the largest food-producing county. As such, return to the area also means a boost in farming activity," said Okello, adding that he was happy UNHCR would thus be contributing to the country's revival by bringing its people back to a critical area.
UNHCR has assisted the return of over 7,000 Liberian refugees from neighbouring countries since it started facilitating repatriation last October. The refugee agency expects more than 100,000 Liberian refugees to repatriate this year.
By Sarah Brownell