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Liberian refugees rush home to register to vote

Liberian refugees rush home to register to vote

Hundreds of Liberian refugees are returning home from neighbouring countries ahead of the June 4 deadline to register to vote in the October elections.
30 May 2005
Liberian returnees registering at Sinje transit centre in western Liberia.

MONROVIA, Liberia, May 30 (UNHCR) - As the saying goes, the last steps towards a goal are always the longest and the most tiring ones. Recently, more than 60 Liberian returnees went through that painful experience. After years of exile in Sierra Leone's refugee camps, the convoy that was bringing them home had to stop briefly at the border to process their immigration papers. The returnees only had to wait for half an hour, but those 30 minutes of seeing Liberia just across the Mano river felt like an eternity.

"I was so impatient to get back," says a young mother shortly after the convoy arrived in Sinje transit centre in western Liberia. "But now I feel good. I made it just in time."

Indeed, she made it just in time to experience the still fragile but steadily growing confidence of Liberians in the peaceful future of their country. And just in time to register to vote. After years of brutal conflict, Liberia is set to hold the elections on October 11. Although the 1, 511 voter registration centres set up by the National Elections Commission (NEC) closed their doors on May 21, UNHCR negotiated with the NEC to extend the registration period for Liberian returnees until June 4.

At the transit centre, the returnees' faces reflect a mix of exhaustion, relief and hope. They listen to the welcome speeches, and make an effort to believe that their nightmare is really over before they slowly begin to relax.

"The war is over, we assure you," a Liberian UNHCR field officer tells them. "This is your country and we welcome you back."

A young boy grabs his grandmother's skirt. Back in the summer of 2003, this family of four - the grandma, her son Sam Boima and her two grandsons - walked together from their village in Liberia's Gbarpolu county to Sierra Leone. The children's mother was killed, but the family managed to stay together.

They want to go right back to their village, or what is left of it, in north-western Liberia. "First I'll build a hut for all of us, and then I'll set up a garden," Boima says. "And as soon as I get home, I'll go to the magistrate and register to vote. This is Liberia's chance to make a difference."

The fact that LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels destroyed his entire village and killed his wife is in the past. "I want to vote for a better President for our country," he explains, looking hopeful.

So far, 1.2 million Liberians have registered to vote, 55 per cent of them women. At the moment, they can choose between 53 presidential candidates, but there are still more to come.

"I don't know yet who I'm going to vote for," returnee Brima Kamara says softly. "We hardly know any of them. But I still have time to decide."

Asked if he believes in the safety of his country, he nods: "Yes, I think everything will be alright. I'm happy. My body feels good now." He had sent his whole family on previous convoys back home to Grand Cape Mount county in western Liberia and wanted to be the last one to arrive.

Kamara shows a brochure he received from UNHCR's implementing partner, Environmental Foundation for Africa. The pamphlet shows a painting of a functioning community, neighbours living happily together, taking care of their communities, the forest and the environment. The brochure's title reads: "Arriving at home. Postwar reconstruction". In four pages, returnees get practical tips on how to compost or install fireplaces properly as well as information on planting different seeds side by side and protecting the endangered environment.

Kamara waits patiently for his turn in the returnee registration process. After three years in Sierra Leone's Largo camp, he is no longer in a hurry. His family is safe, and they even got back their former land without any problems.

Several property disputes and houses occupied by ex-combatants recently created tensions between returnees and the local communities they went back to. As a result, the UN agencies in Liberia, including UNHCR, have established Property Committees in each county and district. So far, most of the cases have been solved through mediation by the clan or village chiefs.

Kamara is confident about his future in Liberia and wants to register to vote as soon as possible. "It is our right. I did not want to miss that chance," he explains. So it is no wonder that convoys keep arriving from neighbouring countries, bringing home hundreds of Liberian returnees before June 4. Just in time to make a little difference.

By Annette Rehrl
UNHCR Liberia