Mood in Monrovia "more relaxed"; UNHCR back in action
MONROVIA, Liberia, August 13 (UNHCR) - The mood in the Liberian capital of Monrovia appeared more relaxed today amid encouraging signs that the worst may be over. The humanitarian situation, however, remains precarious pending the arrival of relief supplies in the besieged city.
According to Moses Okello, UNHCR's Representative for Liberia who arrived in Monrovia on Tuesday, encouraging signs include the departure of ex-President Charles Taylor, the gradual return of aid agencies' international staff, and an agreement reportedly reached with the LURD (Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels that they would retreat beyond the Po river on Thursday at mid-day.
When in force, this agreement - brokered with the intervention of the West African ECOMIL forces on the ground and the commander of the US warship stationed offshore - will effectively ensure free access to the Monrovia port, a crucial entry point for the delivery of fuel, food and other relief items to the capital. The new frontline will also allow a number of displaced people stranded in the Mamba Point area to return to their homes beyond the present battle zone.
"Compared to last Saturday, when I was able to enter Monrovia for the day, the atmosphere is much more relaxed now," said Okello. "People are still frightened but there is now a glimmer of hope after Taylor's departure. Chances are that we are really on our way to a resumption of activities, and the beginning of a new life for the Liberian people."
The presence of three US warships off the shore of Monrovia has also brought relief to many Monrovia citizens, who looked to the sea with high hopes when the ships arrived on Monday.
Food and fuel are still scarce and highly prized in the Liberian capital. Prices have been fluctuating day by day as the situation evolves.
"When there is no fighting, people are attempting to cross bridges to obtain commodities on the other side," said a UNHCR staff member who has been staying at the UNHCR compound in Mamba Point with hundreds of refugees and displaced people since the recent fighting broke out. "Or they are finding other ways, like using makeshift canoes, to cross the river. But harassment is rife when they return with food, and it is not rare that they lose everything."
On Wednesday morning, UNHCR staff participated in an all-staff meeting chaired by Carolyn McAskie, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Co-ordinator.
As aid agencies prepare for a speedy resumption of humanitarian activities, UNHCR has already given the go-ahead for a ship loaded with relief items to be released from Freetown, Sierra Leone. The ship is set to leave on Wednesday 6 pm local time, and will dock at Monrovia port on Friday morning. Upon return, on Saturday, it will transport back to Freetown some 300 Sierra Leonean refugees, among them people who have been stranded at the agency's office in recent weeks.
As fighting raged in July, UNHCR had launched an emergency evacuation of some of the estimated 15,000 Sierra Leoneans remaining in Liberia. Some 1,250 people were able to reach Freetown safely before fighting in Monrovia stopped the fifth voyage from reaching the Liberian port to pick up refugees.
The UN is also negotiating with the LURD to open up a land route from Sierra Leone to the Liberian capital. This will enable speedier emergency repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees by UNHCR and also facilitate the delivery of goods, food and other humanitarian aid to Monrovia and in turn, to other parts of Liberia.
The presence of another rebel group, however, may complicate the situation. On Tuesday, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) was reportedly moving towards the Harbel international airport from Buchanan, south-east of Monrovia, where they are stationed. Fighting was heard from the airport, displacing more people in the area and prompting ECOMIL forces to try and negotiate with MODEL rebels.