UNHCR ship carries 300 refugees to safety in Sierra Leone
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, July 7 (UNHCR) - More than 300 Sierra Leonean refugees evacuated from war-torn Liberia arrived safely in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown over the weekend aboard a UNHCR-chartered rescue ship.
The MV Overbeck arrived in Freetown on Saturday night in the first voyage of an emergency evacuation aimed at bringing home thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees currently stranded in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
The Overbeck, which left Monrovia on Friday afternoon, moored off Freetown's port at 11 p.m. (local time) on Saturday after nearly 32 hours in stormy seas. The refugees broke into song and dance as the ship approached Freetown. The excited but visibly exhausted refugees disembarked on Sunday morning when the ship was allowed to dock. A large contingent of Sierra Leonean police screened the refugees and their meagre belongings. A number of UNHCR's partner agencies were also on hand to assist the returning Sierra Leoneans.
The returnees, among them some unaccompanied children who had travelled with foster families, spent the first night back in their homeland at a reception centre in Jui, some 50 km from Freetown. They were brought to Jui earlier in the day in a nine-truck convoy. On Monday, two UNHCR-organised convoys were scheduled to take them to their home areas in the Kailahun and Pujehun districts of south-eastern Sierra Leone. There, the returnees will receive reintegration packages to help them begin rebuilding.
Many of the returnees, mainly from the VOA camp near Monrovia, say they fled to Liberia nearly six years ago to escape conflict in Sierra Leone. VOA is one of four Monrovia-area refugee camps, which together hosted some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees before the latest round of fighting.
UNHCR staff who visited some of the camps near Monrovia last week said the sprawling VOA site remained largely deserted. Many of the former residents are still holed up along with displaced Liberians in various embassies, UN compounds, schools and churches in the besieged Liberian capital. Small numbers of refugees have reportedly begun moving back into the camps, however.
On Sunday, UNHCR staff in Freetown spent most of the day re-stocking the MV Overbeck for its second rescue voyage to Monrovia. The ship left Freetown at 7 p.m. Sunday and is expected back in Monrovia by Tuesday morning to evacuate more Sierra Leonean refugees.
More than 5,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia have expressed an interest in returning home. Many are living in extremely difficult conditions and have received little or no assistance since a rebel offensive on the Monrovia area in the first week of June. The worsening security situation in Monrovia also led to a pull-out of UN and NGO international aid workers on June 9.