Biggest convoy to date heads back to Lofa county, Liberia
KENEMA, Sierra Leone, March 21 (UNHCR) - More than 300 Liberian refugees have returned in the first and biggest UNHCR convoy from Sierra Leone to Lofa county, Liberia's largest area of return.
In the early morning darkness of Sunday, 353 pairs of eyes waited patiently for the trucks that were to take them home to Lofa county. This was the first such convoy since the UN refugee agency began facilitating returns from Sierra Leone to Liberia in October last year.
More than half of the refugees living in Sierra Leone originate from Lofa county. Not surprisingly, when UNHCR started its registration for the first convoy to Lofa, over 100 families signed up, resulting in its largest convoy so far.
Most of the refugees in Sunday's convoy arrived in Sierra Leone between 2000 and 2002 amid brutal fighting in Liberia. They found safety in Sierra Leone and soon adapted to life in a refugee camp.
Fayah M. Sesay arrived in Sierra Leone in February 2002 after living as a refugee in Guinea for four years in the 1990s. A nurse by profession, he worked with the non-governmental organisations, Merlin and Médecins Sans Frontières, while in exile, but resigned last month when he learned that Lofa county had been declared safe. "I come from a large family, I need to go back and make a foundation for them," he explained.
He is not alone in his unflinching desire to return home. Kofie Tamba, a 90-year-old man from Fobema in Lofa county, said, "I am going back to cut sticks and rebuild my house while my body is still strong." He fled to Sierra Leone with his son and grandsons in 2002, and together, they are going back to rebuild their homes and lives in their own country. The old man will ride all the way back to Lofa in an ambulance designated for vulnerable people, making his journey a little easier.
"The government of Sierra Leone has been kind, and Gerrihun refugee camp was okay, but Liberia is home," Tamba said before leaving the camp.
It will take five days for the convoy to reach its final destination. The 27 trucks will cross into Liberia through the Bo Waterside border, then travel through Monrovia before finally arriving in Lofa. Way stations have been set up along the way for overnight stops.
UNHCR is assessing a more direct route to Lofa through Kailahun. Currently the road conditions to Kailahun and the border at Baidu still need some rehabilitation. UNHCR expects that the first convoy using the Baidu crossing point will take place in April, which will reduce the travel time to Lofa county to two days.
Despite the long journey, the refugees in Sunday's convoy were overjoyed with the prospect of seeing their homeland again. Many laughed and sang as the trucks left for Zimmi way station near the Liberian border. One refugee shouted from the truck, "There is nothing sweeter than home!"
In all, 8,928 Liberian refugees from Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have been assisted home by UNHCR since last October.
By Rachel Goldstein-Rodriguez in Kenema, Sierra Leone