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Liberia: vulnerable Sierra Leoneans movement completed

Briefing notes

Liberia: vulnerable Sierra Leoneans movement completed

26 October 1999

A last group of elderly and infirm Sierra Leonean refugees were brought by UNHCR yesterday to a new camp after a week-long transfer operation from the northern Liberian town of Kolahun, which was attacked by armed men in mid-August.

The 165 vulnerable refugees and their caretakers were the only Sierra Leoneans remaining on the site at Kolahun after the security incident two months ago forced aid workers to withdraw from the area. Over 10,000 other refugees, concerned about further violence and the enforced absence of humanitarian staff, had already abandoned Kolahun and walked 100 km to the safety of another town, Tarvey, closer to Monrovia.

UNHCR had sought permission from Liberian authorities to operate a convoy to Kolahun, as well as an armed escort. Permission was granted ten days ago and 10 trucks along with medical staff and an ambulance set out on the 440 km trip on 16 October.

The convoy encountered terrible road conditions - heavy earth-moving equipment had to be used to pull trucks out of the mud - and repeated delays at military road blocks. Higher-ranking members of the Liberian army, including the Minister of Defense, had to intervene on several occasions to make sure the convoy was allowed to proceed. Eight trucks (two broke down en route) returned to Monrovia on Sunday, 24 October.

UNHCR staff noted a large military presence at Voinjama, where aid workers have not been allowed back by the army since the August incidents. The convoy was also able to bring back what little remained of UNHCR's office equipment in Kolahun.

Almost 5,000 Sierra Leoneans from the Kolahun population have now been transferred to Sinje. About as many remain at Tarvey. There are around 90,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia.