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UNHCR encourages Sierra Leoneans to go home as deadline approaches


UNHCR encourages Sierra Leoneans to go home as deadline approaches

The UN refugee agency has urged Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia to seize their last opportunity for assisted repatriation, with just weeks to go before the end of organised return convoys to Sierra Leone.
17 May 2004
Sierra Leonean refugees loading their luggage at Monrovia's VOA camp before heading home.

BO WATERSIDE, Liberia, May 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has urged Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia to seize their last opportunity to go home with UNHCR assistance as the deadline for organised repatriation approaches.

"Voluntary repatriation, where possible, is the best durable solution for refugees," said UNHCR Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello, noting that the agency has facilitated the return of over 3,000 Sierra Leoneans from Liberia so far this year.

The remaining 10,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia's camps have only six weeks to go before UNHCR stops its twice-weekly return convoys to Sierra Leone. During his visit to West Africa in late April/early May, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers announced that assistance to Sierra Leonean refugees in the region would be cut off by June 30.

Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans fled their country after the civil war started in 1991. Many of them returned home with the end of the conflict and the ensuing elections in April 2002. UNHCR has helped more than 250,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to repatriate and reintegrate in the last four years.

The latest return convoy from Liberia to Sierra Leone took place last Friday. Mohammed Sosu was among the 263 people who left Monrovia's VOA camp for home. Despite the horrifying experiences that drove him into exile, he was eager to go back to his country.

Recalling why he left Sierra Leone, he said, "I couldn't witness any more rapes and violent crimes against my people every day."

In 1995, he and his family walked from Freetown to the Sierra Leonean border town of Zimmi. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provided them with transport assistance up to Bo Waterside on the Liberian side of the border, from where they took private transport to Monrovia. They arrived in VOA camp, where UNHCR immediately assisted them with food, shelter and relief aid.

But Mohammed soon found himself caught in another civil war, this time in Liberia. He remembered government troops harassing people in the refugee camps, looting and causing mayhem. They also tried to forcibly recruit refugee men into their forces.

As the camp's chairman, he was held hostage for five hours. The government troops extorted money and tortured him, accusing him of harbouring dissidents in the camp.

"Now peace has been restored in my country and I want be home," said Mohammed. There is no place like home, he told a UNHCR staff member as he waited anxiously on Friday morning with his wife and two-year-old baby, smiling and waving excitedly as he boarded one of the six trucks bound for home.

The repatriation of refugees to post-war Sierra Leone has always been a top priority for UNHCR. The agency has helped them home from Liberia even under the most trying conditions - initially by road, then by air and later by sea when land routes were cut off by rebel fighting.

In March this year, UNHCR resumed the land repatriation through Bo Waterside following the deployment of UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) troops along the road to the Liberia-Sierra Leone border.

Returning refugees stop over at Zimmi way station, where they are vaccinated against polio, a procedure that makes it necessary for them to remain isolated and thus stay at the way station for a week. They also receive mats, blankets and daily hot meals.

After a week, they leave for their home villages after receiving a reintegration package - including a kitchen set, plastic sheeting, jerry cans and soap - as well as a 20,000 Leone allowance ($8) for the transport home. They are also given a two-month food ration of bulgur, oil and pulses, and a token to receive another ration two months later.

Among Friday's returnees were families which will eventually return to Pujehun, Bo and Kenema, and the surrounding villages. UNHCR runs nearly 300 community empowerment projects in Sierra Leone's returnee areas to help both returnees and the receiving communities to reconstruct their lives.

These projects, which are jointly decided upon after consultations with local authorities, the villagers and returnees themselves, are designed to help harmonious reintegration and provide equal chances for all to play a role in the reconstruction of their country. Ongoing projects involve the sectors of water, health, education, forestry and income generation.

While in Sierra Leone recently, High Commissioner Lubbers noted that one of the vital sectors that still needed attention was road rehabilitation. Roads are crucial for the economy, the free movement of people, and will be essential in the forthcoming repatriation of Liberian refugees in October this year.

While meeting with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the High Commissioner said he would appeal to the international community to bring more long-term investment in road rehabilitation in Sierra Leone.