Liberian refugees go home for the holidays and harvest
MONROVIA, Liberia, Dec 7 (UNHCR) - The largest return convoy to date has left Sierra Leone for Liberia as the UN refugee agency winds down facilitated repatriation before the year-end festive season. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to help returnees achieve a good harvest for the coming year.
On Monday, 250 Liberian refugees left their camps in Sierra Leone in the largest single convoy back to Liberia since UNHCR started the region-wide repatriation operation on October 1. Carrying domestic animals such as cats, dogs and chickens, some of the refugees say they are happy that for the first time in recent years, they will be spending Christmas at home.
"I came to Sierra Leone on Friday, February 15, 2002. This year I am returning to spend Christmas and the New Year at home with my wife, children and mother," said Siaffa Joseph, 30. "We hear that life is currently difficult in Liberia, but the war is over, so we have to go."
"There is nowhere like home," said Moses Kollie, 33, as he waved goodbye to his friends, some of them Sierra Leoneans. "God willing, I will come back to visit you." Kollie was returning to Gbarpolu in Liberia with his wife and four children after staying for nearly three years in Bandajuma camp, one of the eight camps hosting Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.
"I have no idea of whether I will find my house intact. All I know is that my area has been declared safe, and with security, I am sure prosperity will come one day," he said optimistically.
Mohamed Mansaray, who works for UNHCR in Jembe camp, said more refugees want to register to return, but their home areas have yet to be declared safe. "For us in the field, working with the refugees and considering them as our brothers and sisters, sometimes we feel emotional to part with them. But we also feel satisfied that we have been able to render assistance to them in their difficult times," he said.
Moriba Foday, a senior staff member of Sierra Leone's National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), added, "As far as registering the refugees is concerned and ensuring that they are taken back home in safety and dignity, this is an excellent operation."
The last convoy from Sierra Leone this year is expected to cross over to Liberia on Friday before the Christmas and New Year holidays. A total of 1,408 Liberian refugees have returned home from Sierra Leone with UNHCR assistance since October 1.
Upon arriving in Liberia, the returnees receive food, relief items and transportation allowance to get back to their home areas, where UNHCR and its partners are running projects to help them reintegrate.
Recently, UNHCR and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) signed an agreement to provide Liberian farmers with basic agricultural input until the end of 2005. The Liberia Agriculture Reintegration Project is expected to benefit 20,000 families in the main counties of return - Bong, Grand Gedeh, Lofa, Montserrado and Nimba.
In the initial phase, some 7,500 families will receive farming tools and assorted vegetable seeds during the current farming season. This will be followed by a training session on farming methods to refresh their memories on agricultural techniques and to introduce new technical knowledge for enhanced production.
Next year, the emphasis will shift to the production and processing of rice - the main staple in Liberia - as well as assisting returnees and host communities in agricultural activities through community empowerment projects.
"Under this project, UNHCR will ensure the protection and welfare of Liberian returnees and other war-affected populations, to facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original towns and villages in a sustainable manner," said the refugee agency's representative in Liberia, Moses Okello.
UNHCR hopes to help some of the estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees in the region to repatriate after the country's 14-year civil war ended in August 2003. In addition to Sierra Leone, the agency is also running return movements from Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria.
By Sulaiman Momodu in Freetown, Sierra Leone
and Francesca Fontanini in Monrovia, Liberia