Plea for Liberian peace in Sarkannedou
SARKANNEDOU, Liberia, Aug 11 (UNHCR) - The plaintive chant rises from a group of women and children putting up an impromptu show for visiting relief workers at the devastated village of Sarkannedou in northern Liberia.
"We want peace. We want peace. We are tired of war," they say, clapping rhythmically and swaying to the beat.
Fourteen years of continual civil strife ended with the departure on 11 August 2003 of Charles Taylor, the former president, who as a disgruntled economics minister started it all. Taylor had unleashed his Patriotic Front troops against the government in 1989 and they later turned against each other even before they executed then-president Samuel Doe.
Now, as UN troops deploy across the country to enforce a tenuous peace, Liberians have begun picking up the pieces of their lives.
Here in Sarkannedou in Lofa county, around 1,800 villagers who had scurried into the bush or to Guinea in the latest round of blood-letting in 2002, are now back. A school that the UN refugee agency had built before is being reconstructed under the supervision of the relief group Peace Winds Japan. The agency is also providing shelter kits and kitchen sets to Sarkannedou's most impoverished villagers.
The task of rebuilding is immense. The scars of war are everywhere. In former battle zones, most houses and buildings are roofless or pocked with bullets and bomb blasts. Rain forests have swallowed villages left empty for years. In many areas, only stubbles of concrete can be seen poking through thick foliage where once churches and government buildings stood. Schools, hospitals and basic facilities are in ruins.
A force of 15,000 UN peacekeepers, called UNMIL, began deploying in Liberia shortly after Taylor departed for an exile's life in Nigeria in the face of advancing rebel forces. The insurgents have since joined a transitional government pending elections in October 2005.
A nationwide disarmament and demobilization programme is also being implemented. Around 60,000 fighters have so far turned in their weapons.
"The situation has greatly improved," says Moses Okello, UNHCR's Representative in Monrovia. But he warns: "Although disarmament is going on, there will not be total security; there will be some guns out there."
The refugees and other internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are not waiting for ideal conditions to return to the nation of 2.5 million people reeling from years of civil strife that has claimed 200,000 lives and uprooted 800,000 others.
In their enthusiasm to begin a new life back home, they end up in camps for displaced people, unable to proceed to their homes because of continued instability in some parts of the country and non-existent basic services such as water, electricity, schools and medical facilities. More than 300,000 Liberians are in 20 IDP camps, most of them scattered around the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Joseph Kameh, a 32-year-old father of two girls, came back in December from Gerihun camp in eastern Sierra Leone. He says tensions there between the Liberian refugees and local communities prompted him to go back to Liberia. Memories of Taylor sending troops to sow discord in Sierra Leone and elsewhere remain in West Africa.
But back in Liberia, Kameh cannot proceed to his home immediately. "Everything has been destroyed. It is very difficult to go back now," he says. He is staying at Perrytown camp outside Monrovia.
Perrytown and nearby Seigbeh are temporary homes to some 10,000 returnees from neighbouring countries which host around 350,000 Liberian refugees. These two camps used to house Sierra Leonean refugees who had returned after a decade-long war in their country ended in 2001.
Before UNMIL's Bangladesh battalion came earlier this year, nearby Gbarnga in Bong county was empty. Most of its 122,000 residents had either gone to an IDP camp or to neighbouring Guinea or Sierra Leone. Now, around 50,000 of its residents have returned.
"There is no place like home. Security is fine. People are rebuilding houses. Therefore, I decided to come back and stay so I can go for my family later," says Augustine Dorley, 45. He had come back from Kouankan camp in Guinea's Nzérékoré region on March 16 to check out possibilities in his hometown of Kolahun in western Liberia.
"The future of Liberia is fine. The peace process is holding. Security is improving. People are reconciling, families are reuniting," says Wilfred Ballah, 49, who recently returned with his family of seven from Largo camp in Sierra Leone.
Ester Walker, mayor of Gbarnga, says people are coming back every day. "We are in dire need of everything," she says. She appeals to the international community to put the heavily devastated town back on its feet. "There is nothing here. I hold office under a tree."
UNHCR's Okello says his office is negotiating tripartite agreements with Liberia and the neighbouring countries hosting Liberian refugees for a facilitated voluntary repatriation programme starting in October. The agreements will set out the legal framework for the returns and set out the rights and obligations of the parties. Refugees who want to go back to their homes now will be given assistance.
"As the peace process continues, disarmament continues, we will arrive at a point where we will be able to say to refugees that it is indeed time to come home," Okello says.