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UNHCR sends urgent aid to newly displaced in central Liberia

UNHCR sends urgent aid to newly displaced in central Liberia

The UN refugee agency has dispatched trucks with plastic sheeting, food and water for more than 50,000 people on the road near Totota town who were uprooted by fears of fresh violence in central Liberia. Without immediate assistance, they could walk all the way to Monrovia.
4 September 2003
Anxious Liberians on the road between Totota and Salala, fleeing amid fears of fresh fighting and harassment.

MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today sent trucks of emergency aid to assist tens of thousands of people fleeing amid fears of fresh fighting and harassment in central Liberia and heading towards the capital, Monrovia.

As part of an inter-agency effort, UNHCR on Thursday dispatched trucks with plastic sheeting, as well as water and high-protein biscuits provided by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other non-governmental agencies, to meet the urgent needs of more than 50,000 people displaced from central Liberia's Totota town the day before.

"It is not completely clear why the people decided to leave en masse, but it is clear that they are afraid," said Julien Vrancken, UNHCR's field security adviser. "The news of a nearby attack by LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and the arrival of government militia in the camps, harassing and looting, were enough for more than 50,000 people to pack their bags and leave."

Before the mass exodus, Totota had hosted more than 80,000 people, many of whom lived in five camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Already jittery over reports of a LURD attack on a town further north, Totota's population cleared out quickly after government militia reportedly entered the town, taking advantage of the chaos to harass people and take their belongings.

For hours on Wednesday, the road between Totota and neighbouring Salala town was packed with a bobbing sea of anxious and tired people, dragging their feet under the enormous weight of their belongings.

The newly displaced people were desperate and exhausted, among them the elderly and vulnerable, the young mother trying to juggle her twins while balancing household items on her head, the man with one foot and the child with a balloon-sized belly.

"Where are you now?" they shouted at an inter-agency team that was visiting the area. "Why you no help? Liberia is not Monrovia alone. Where is ECOMIL?"

They begged to be transported in the UN vehicles to a safer place, trying to block the convoy and crying, "We have no food, no food, no food, help us."

Even on the road, militia men in stolen cars continued to harass the fleeing population all the way to Salala. "Look what they (LURD rebels) did to our people," shouted one man with a battered eye and a rifle in his hands, scaring the moving crowd. "This is the reality today, they broke the cease-fire," he added, before racing off in a car that nearly collapsed under the weight of stolen goods.

Most of the displaced people ended up for the night in one of the IDP camps in Salala. This camp, Salala 1, was built for 7,000 people but is presently housing 30,000. The new influx could increase that number to over 80,000 people overnight.

"We need to try to stop this movement now and provide some security to these desperate people," said Kamel Deriche, UNHCR's senior emergency administrator, who was part of the inter-agency mission. "If we don't, there is a great likelihood that these people will walk all the way to Monrovia, seen as the only safe haven these days in Liberia."

To improve security in the area, the West African ECOMIL peacekeeping troops agreed to send patrols on Thursday, all the way to Totota. Additional convoys of emergency aid have been planned for Friday and Saturday. At the same time, a temporary transit centre may be built in Salala or Kakata, further south towards Monrovia, where many people were seen heading.