Liberian government declares four counties safe for return ahead of UNHCR repatriation
MONROVIA, Liberia, Sept 16 (UNHCR) - The government of Liberia has declared four western counties safe for return, two weeks before the start of one of the largest voluntary repatriation operations in West Africa.
On Wednesday, Liberia's National Security Assessment Committee for Resettlement announced that Bomi, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount and Margibi counties had met the minimum requirements for the safe return of Liberians uprooted by 14 years of civil war.
The benchmark used included the completion of disarmament, the presence of civil authorities, reasonable spontaneous returns by refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the rehabilitation of basic services and the unhindered presence of humanitarian workers.
"We welcome the decision that conditions are now acceptable for return to these areas and UNHCR should now facilitate the return of Liberian refugees who have opted to come home," said Philip Dwuye, who heads the committee and is also Executive Director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC).
"We all know that the conditions cannot be 100 percent after long years of instability, but these counties have met the minimal requirements to be declared safe for return," he added. There are a total of 15 counties in Liberia.
Wednesday's declaration will pave the way home for Liberian refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Although thousands started returning on their own after August 2003, when the departure of former Liberian president Charles Taylor paved the way for peace, many of them could not go back to their home areas, which were still unsafe for return. These spontaneous returnees are currently living in IDP camps near the capital, Monrovia.
The UN refugee agency has repeatedly urged Liberian refugees to wait for organised return convoys that will start in October this year.
Security is a major precondition for return. Mohamed M. Dulleh, 41, arrived in Guinea in 1999 after fleeing Liberia for the second time. He is now Chairman of Kouankan refugee camp in Macenta, a Guinea town facing Liberia's Lofa county.
"We are happy to go home once more and to take part in Liberia's reconstruction, but we are worried for our security once we go back. The government and international community must ensure that the conflict doesn't happen again," he said. "We also want to make sure we have access to health care and education for our children, just like we do in the camps."
In addition to ensuring a safe and dignified return for Liberian refugees, UNHCR has also been working on reconstruction and rehabilitation projects to help returnees settle back in their home communities.
So far, the refugee agency and its partners have reconstructed a transit centre for returnees in Gbarnga (Bong county) and are completing work on two others in Bo Waterside and Sinje (Grand Cape Mount county). Two more transit centres will be set up on Lofa county.
Clinics are being rehabilitated, as are wells, water and sanitation facilities. Schools around Liberia are also undergoing reconstruction. A shelter project in Totoquelleh village (Gbarpolu county) has provided a model for rebuilding houses in villages badly devastated by the war.
IDP Mary Adams, 40, recently moved into her new house in Totoquelleh. It is her first real home since she fled her village in Voinjama (Lofa county) in 1991. She lost her parents and husband in the conflict, while her son was amputated by the rebels. Today, she has remarried, given birth to two more children and adopted a third. But the past continues to haunt her.
"I can still see the rebels killing my parents before my eyes," she said. "But when I look at my children and my new house, I see the way forward."
She added hopefully, "People are rebuilding houses. Life is coming back to my country and when Lofa is safer, I will go back to my home, ready to vote in the elections."
Liberia's elections are scheduled for October 2005. By the end of this year, UNHCR hopes to facilitate the repatriation of 100,000 Liberian refugees out of an estimated 340,000 living in exile in West Africa at the beginning of 2004.