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West Africa: UNHCR and partners build on HC mission momentum

Briefing notes

West Africa: UNHCR and partners build on HC mission momentum

20 February 2001

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers arrived back in Geneva yesterday (Monday), ending an eight-day mission to five West African nations in which he enlisted the support of regional leaders to ensure safe access to and passage for tens of thousands of refugees. UNHCR and its partners are moving quickly to build on the momentum generated by Mr. Lubbers' mission. Our office in Kissidougou, central Guinea, reported this morning that a reduction in fighting and apparent improvement of the security situation in the Parrot's Beak area of south-western Guinea is holding, allowing us to push ahead with plans to resume the aid pipeline into the region - possibly as early as this coming weekend. An estimated 140,000 refugees, mostly from Sierra Leone and some from Liberia, are still stranded in dozens of refugee camps in the Parrot's Beak, victims of unsafe conditions and suffering from the the absence of regular humanitarian aid. International organisations and NGOs withdrew from the Parrot's Beak last September following rebel attacks which caused thousands of refugees and local people to flee. Most people, however, remained there - unable to leave.

The food and medical situation has grown increasingly desperate, and the approaching rainy season, about 60 days from now, makes access even more urgent. Reports from some NGOs who have reached the Parrot's Beak in recent days indicated cases of malnutrition in the region. Some mentioned reports of numerous deaths, especially among children.

The general improvement of the security situation along roads heading into the region has allowed UNHCR to plan for regular truck convoys from Kissidougou, transporting urgently needed food for distribution to the Parrot's Beak refugees and displaced people. First, however, at least three damaged bridges have to be repaired for use by heavy trucks - work that is now underway. On their return, the same trucks will be used to transport the most vulnerable people for relocation to safer camps in central Guinea, where we are currently building spaces for about 1,000 new arrivals every day. The most vulnerable people from the Parrot's Beak will first be taken to a transfer station at Katkama camp, about 30 km north of Guéckédou. Refugees in Katkama are then being picked up for relocation to a new site of Kountaya, in Albadaria Prefecture.

Once the bridges are repaired - hopefully this week - we can use an alternative route to the Parrot's Beak that avoids movement through the devastated town centre of Guéckédou, which is still considered a security hazard. The government has authorized the use of this direct route.

The improvement in security has also allowed us to complete a six-day operation in which more than 600 tons of food and non-food items from a UNHCR / WFP warehouse on the northern edge of Guéckédou were retrieved and re-positioned in our base at Kissidougou. This means we can start food distribution as soon as the road is repaired to the Parrot's Beak. We have already identified 35 distribution centres in the Parrot's Beak region and set up distribution teams. The stocks in Guéckédou had been inaccessible since September, due to ongoing fighting in the area. In addition to food, UNHCR was able to recover 8,000 pieces of plastic sheeting, 16,000 blankets, 13,000 jerry cans, 12 metric tons of soap and 4,700 mats, as well as 30 cartons containing water pumps for the new refugee sites. The food will be used for the Parrot's Beak and other camps of the region, while non-food items are destined for the newly relocated refugees in the Kountaya camp.

Yesterday, UNHCR was able to relocate 1,020 refugees from Nyaedou camp to the new camp in Kountaya, some 180 km from the southern border. A total of 9,300 refugees from Nyaedou and Katkama - both on the fringes of the southern conflict area - have so far been relocated since the beginning of the operation on February 6. The convoys, comprising about 20 trucks, two buses for the most vulnerable people, and one ambulance, have a capacity of about a thousand refugees daily. Refugees continue arriving in Nyaedou and Katkama from the Parrot's Beak at a daily rate of about 300 to 500, while dozens of arrivals from the same region are also reported further north in Massakoundou, some 15 km west of Kissidougou. The camp of Massakoundou nearly tripled in population between December and January following renewed attacks in the Parrot's Beak and the burning of several refugee camps, which forced people out of the camps. After yesterday's convoy, Nyaedou's population is estimated at only a few hundred, but Katkama's population is still estimated at about 10,000 to 12,000.

Food distribution, including bulgur, lentils and oil, was completed last week to nearly 20,000 people in six camps along the Kissidougou / Faranah road. Another food distribution is planned this week in Katkama and Massakoundou (30,000).