UNHCR gravely concerned after Liberian rebels attack refugee camp
MONROVIA, Liberia, June 24 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency expressed grave concern over last week's attack on Liberia's Sinje camp as some 4,000 of the camp's inhabitants fled to Sierra Leone over the weekend. Large groups have also arrived in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, with thousands more believed to be hiding in the nearby forest.
"The situation in Liberia, already quite difficult, has now worsened dramatically, putting at risk both Sierra Leonean refugees and the local population," said David Lambo, UNHCR's Africa Director.
In all, some 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and 13,000 displaced Liberians hosted in Sinje camps I and II fled the area on June 20 after rebels affiliated to the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) attacked the site and the neighbouring town. The local population of Sinje town, estimated at 4,000 to 5,000 people, also escaped. At least one refugee was reportedly killed in the attack.
Refugees who managed to reach Monrovia or cross into Sierra Leone said the Sinje refugee camp was empty, deserted, and had been looted of all usable material and possessions. According to witnesses who tried to return to the camp the morning after the attack, there was "nothing left but empty structures".
As of Monday morning, some 4,000 new arrivals from Sinje had been reported at the Gendema border crossing in south-eastern Sierra Leone. Although UNHCR is making every effort to organise emergency assistance, the pace of arrivals is rapidly becoming a cause for concern.
"We are worried that the Zimmi waystation is now overstretched and that we may not be able to keep up the pace of transferring people further inland to refugee camps and sites," said Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR Freetown's Information Officer. Zimmi, situated a few kilometres away from the border, was set up a few months ago for Liberian refugees fleeing the fighting in their country.
On Sunday alone, a total of 863 refugees and 448 returnees crossed the border at Gendema and were all transported to Zimmi. According to Fontanini, "the number of vulnerable cases, pregnant women, mothers with small children and unaccompanied children is also on the rise".
New arrivals in Sierra Leone include a majority of Liberian refugees (about 85 percent), although the proportion of Sierra Leonean returnees from Sinje camp has been steadily increasing since Friday.
Those fleeing from the Sinje area mentioned numerous cases of extortion by armed forces in Liberia, particularly along the highway and near the border. Some of the refugees said an army checkpoint had been erected between Sinje I and II and that some residents of Sinje I were thus prevented from fleeing towards the border.
Large groups of people have also been seen arriving in Monrovia. So far about 100 Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced Liberians have been relocated to one of UNHCR's five camps near the Liberian capital, where they will receive some food and medical assistance.
Thousands more are still believed to be hiding without resources in the forest and are at risk of being stopped and harassed by armed forces.
On Saturday gunfire was heard from the Liberian side of the border, causing panic among the 1,200 new arrivals hosted in a makeshift camp at the Gendema border who were awaiting transfer to Zimmi waystation. The makeshift camp is now said to hold more than 2,000 people.
UNHCR started transferring the new arrivals from Gendema to Zimmi on June 21, while vulnerable cases and sick persons were being taken by UNHCR nurses to the MSF mobile clinic at Gendema.
The refugee agency is also appealing for the release of five local NGO nurses who were taken away by the attackers in an ambulance belonging to UNHCR. The nurses were working for MERCI, a local NGO providing medical care in Sinje.
The MERCI team in Monrovia has spoken to one of the nurses twice since the attack, through the radio-equipped ambulance. Both times she said they were being treated well. Since Saturday, however, there has been no contact with the group, whose location is now unknown. One of the abductors had initially mentioned they were taking the nurses to Voinjama, an alleged rebel stronghold in the north of Liberia, bordering Guinea.