UNHCR visits displaced people beyond Liberian capital
MONROVIA, Liberia, August 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has ventured beyond Monrovia for a clearer picture of displacement and humanitarian needs in areas outside the Liberian capital.
On Wednesday, UNHCR joined an inter-agency mission to Tubmanburg, a town about 50km north of Monrovia where an estimated 20,000 people have been displaced amid the recent fighting. They have been surviving mainly on cassava leaves and palm cabbage, and are in desperate need of food, health care and sanitation. The local hospital is empty, with all the medicine and equipment looted. Makeshift medical facilities have been set up at a nearby church.
Many of the displaced people say they want to return home, but not before the rainy season ends in October.
On Tuesday, the refugee agency travelled with other aid agencies to Liberia's border with Sierra Leone at Bo Waterside to assess the possibility of creating corridors for humanitarian aid. It noted that bad roads between Bo and Zimmi in Sierra Leone may impede plans to transport returning Sierra Leonean refugees and relief supplies. More security guarantees are also needed on the Liberian side before any progress can be made in this area.
UNHCR has been holding talks with the government militia and rebel forces in Liberia to ensure safe passage on these roads. Since Sunday's signing of an agreement on the distribution of humanitarian aid in the country, their leaders have shown a greater willingness to co-operate with the relief agencies. However, it remains to be seen if this message will trickle down to the warring forces in the countryside.
The refugee agency has also been working closely with the West African ECOMIL troops around the Liberian capital. Security is still problematic in central Monrovia, with daily reports of looting, carjacking, rape and burglary.
To reassure displaced refugees in the area, UNHCR has been providing support for ECOMIL troops to patrol nearby Samukai camp twice a day. More refugees have returned to the camp in recent days.
The refugee agency is working to extend ECOMIL patrols to VOA and Banjor camps in the hope that more displaced refugees and Liberians can return to their home areas soon.
In the short term, UNHCR is persuading the 13,500 Sierra Leonean refugees still in Liberia to go back to their camps, where they can receive food and other assistance as soon as possible. Eventually, the agency hopes to encourage them to go back to Sierra Leone.
"We hope that the Sierra Leoneans will realise that returning home is the best option for them," said UNHCR's protection officer in Monrovia, Lawrence Mgbangson. "Because of the Liberian crisis, people are wondering more and more what kind of life they can have here, a life of constant fear. Still, it will take a while before all 13,500 Sierra Leoneans will be convinced of the return option."
A UNHCR-chartered ship, MV Overbeck, resumed repatriation voyages from Monrovia to Freetown last weekend. Among the first group of returnees who arrived in Freetown on Tuesday were Bangala and his two sons.
"I did not want to return home before, because I had a job as a cleaner in the camp, I had an income," said Bangala, who lost his wife in the fighting in June. "But now, why should I stay?"
Bangala, who is heading back to his hometown of Mobai, added, "Only a few houses were remaining when left in 1991, but I am confident to find someone there. I am 50 years old and do not even have five Liberian dollars to my name. But I will find a way to survive back home."