Liberian port receives first return ship from Ghana
MONROVIA, Liberia, Dec 20 (UNHCR) - The first ship from Ghana carrying 384 Liberian returnees docked today at Monrovia's Freeport after sailing more than three days on the Atlantic Ocean.
On Monday morning, the returning refugees broke into cheers and songs even before the ship docked at the Liberian capital. Bustling with people, luggage and trucks, the port had a festive atmosphere as almost everyone was singing, dancing and trying to overcome the human wall around the ship to identify their relatives.
When Sam Monboe, a 27-year-old returnee, touched the soil of his homeland, he ran into the arms of UNHCR staff and started crying and smiling at the same time. "My feelings are confused. I will never forget this day, but at the same time, I have not forgotten the day I left my country in 1992, leaving behind my people killing each other. Liberians are very adaptable, but deep in our hearts we are traumatised by the sad events we went through during the war," he said.
Monboe is well aware of the poor conditions in Liberia, but remaining in Ghana's Buduburam camp was not an alternative for him. "I always kept myself informed about the situation in my country through UNHCR staff and mass information bulletins in the camp," he said. "Conditions in Liberia are not great but my government, with the help of the humanitarian community, is struggling to make our country safe and vital again."
The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration arranged for a medical and security escort to monitor and ensure the safe sea passage of the returnees. Upon their arrival in Monrovia, they were received at a temporary transit centre at the port, and provided with assistance in the form of food and relief items before taking trucks to join their families. The majority returned to the greater Monrovia area.
The inaugural voyage follows 10 repatriation airlifts from Ghana since the regional voluntary repatriation operation for Liberian refugees started on October 1. As of today, some 5,000 Liberians have returned home with UNHCR assistance, 1,375 of them from Ghana. Two more sea movements from Ghana have been planned in January.
The returnees are ready for the challenges ahead. "Liberia is a little country with big problems," said returnee Victoria Kamara. "Now that I am back, I want to participate to the 2005 elections and help my country to solve the problems. Liberia is part of my life, even if I spent several years in a very hospitable country. But here is where I was born and where I want to spend the rest of my life."
Returnees are aware of the level of destruction in their country since war first broke in 1989. "My house was completely burnt and I need several months to repair it. But I want to have my house in Liberia, where I have good memories of my best part of my life, rather than elsewhere," said another returnee.
Despite the general optimism among the returnees, the scars of the 14 years of conflict are still visible throughout whole country. Massive reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts are being put in place by UNHCR and other humanitarian actors operating in Liberia.
This year alone, about 100,000 refugees repatriated on their own and through facilitated repatriation. A further 154,000 Liberians are expected to repatriate in 2005, while 65,000 is the planning figure for 2006. Subsequently, a verification exercise will be organised for the residual group of refugees in asylum countries, to determine their durable solutions needs.
At the same time, UNHCR and its partners are involved in the movement of internally displaced Liberians from their camps to their villages of origin at a rate of several hundred almost every other day.
By Francesca Fontanini