Lubbers hails peace process, spirit of recovery in Sierra Leone
KENEMA, Sierra Leone, May 16 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers has ended the second-last leg of his West Africa trip by hailing the peace process in Sierra Leone and the positive spirit of returnees and refugees in the war-devastated country.
On Thursday, Lubbers travelled to Sierra Leone's Kenema district to meet President Ahmad Tejan Kabah and senior government officials, during which he lauded the country's transition to peace after 12 years of brutal civil war.
"I was here two years ago, when Sierra Leone was still at war," said Lubbers. "Discussions with RUF [Revolutionary United Front] were planned and in fact those led the way to a Sierra Leone which nowadays finds itself in peace and where more than 200,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned over the past year."
President Kabbah echoed the High Commissioner's hope for an accelerated repatriation process that will enable tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees in the region to return home as soon as possible and help rebuild their country.
On the seriously deteriorating situation in neighbouring Liberia, both men agreed that the time has come for Liberian President Charles Taylor to discuss solutions with the rebel factions. President Kabbah also expressed concern about Liberian ex-combatants flocking into Sierra Leone. UNHCR does not recognise these Liberians as refugees and refers them to the Freetown government after screening.
On Thursday afternoon, Lubbers visited Tobanda camp in eastern Sierra Leone, which houses the most recent refugees from Liberia. Refugee women representatives from eight camps in Sierra Leone - representing 65,000 Liberian refugees - expressed their gratitude to the High Commissioner for implementing projects to empower refugee women towards self-sufficiency.
The need to include women in management and leadership positions and to involve them directly in the aid distribution process was one of the key recommendations made in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse in West Africa's refugee camps last year.
"If you have children and you have no food, you have to give yourself up to feed your children," said a widow from Jembe camp. "Now we are finally getting to know our rights and what we can do differently to survive."
Lubbers assured the refugees, "In UNHCR we developed a Code of Conduct to prevent the abuse of power. This is what we want for you as well. We also want you to go home."
The High Commissioner also visited an amputee settlement at Motema locality in Koidu that housed many Sierra Leonean war victims. He emphasised the importance of providing support for their reintegration.
"When a man has been brutally amputated, it does not mean he is handicapped for life," said a Sierra Leonean returnee whose hand was cut off during the war. "In order to survive, we also need income-generating projects and should be trained to become self-reliant."
Moving north, Lubbers toured Alladura primary school in the diamond-rich Kono district, where returnee children have finally managed to return to school. At the Pakistan friendship school in Yengema, he witnessed the creative enterprise of returnees who have turned rocket-propelled grenades and other war items into cowbells and agricultural tools.
Lubbers left for Guinea on Friday afternoon, where he is scheduled to meet President Lansana Conteh, whose health is deteriorating. The High Commissioner will travel on to Lainé and Lola camps on Saturday and meet refugees, government officials and the donor community before ending his five-nation West Africa mission on Sunday night.