Most of Liberia now declared safe for return
MONROVIA, Feb. 28 (UNHCR) - On Monday, Sinoe County in Liberia was declared safe for the return of refugees and internally displaced people, bringing the number of safe counties to 14 out of a total of 15, leaving just Grand Kru waiting to be declared safe. Across the country, refugees are taking the opportunity to return home, sometimes to surprise welcomes.
Lofa County in northern Liberia is home for the majority of the refugees and IDPs who fled 14 years of a brutal civil war. Just three weeks after it was declared safe for organised returns, refugees and IDPs started coming back to Lofa to pick up the threads of their lives and begin rebuilding. Two weeks ago, as the first repatriation convoy from Kouankan camp, 22 kilometres away in neighbouring Guinea, rolled into the town of Voinjama on its way to the transit centre, residents lined the main streets to watch.
"Thank you UNHCR. Welcome, welcome," chanted some bystanders. Members of the Voinjama Women Development Association, dressed in white T-shirts and green wraps, danced and sang traditional songs. The local authorities organized an elaborate reception at the transit centre to mark the occasion.
As festivities continued, the 140 returnees went through medical, immigration, and UNHCR screening procedures at the transit site. Aid workers distributed hot meals and basic household items such as kitchen utensils, mats, blankets, and enough food to last for two months. The Pakistani Battalion of UNMIL, the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia, also distributed sandwiches and biscuits to children and their mothers, demonstrating their support for the humanitarian effort.
The majority of the returnees spent their first night at the Voinjama transit centre before travelling onwards to Zorzor district the following day. When the convoy set off again, one family headed by 26 year-old Youge Kurboh and her three children aged 8, 6 and 2, disembarked at Gblakpasu village along the highway.
In this once promising town, new shelters are being erected to house the returnees. Still underpopulated, it was only the women and children who came out to watch the convoy of trucks and vehicles snake through the countryside. Among the curious onlookers was Ma Woyea.
As Youge Kurboh and her children off-loaded their possessions, Ma Woyea approached them carefully. After a moment of hesitation, she let out a loud cry and ran barefoot through the thorny grass towards them, dancing, singing and hugging Youge and her children. She had just recognized the daughter she had feared dead. Youge herself was stunned and overwhelmed to see a mother she had thought dead.
Youge and her mother had been separated since 2000, when their village was burned down and everyone fled for their lives. Since then, they had had no news of each other.
UNHCR has been repatriating Liberians since October last year, and while many express happiness at their return, they also face the uncertainty of whether they will find lost family members and property left behind when they fled. But those uncertainties have not quenched their will to rebuild their lives.
Garmai Flomo, a mother of five children on the convoy, wonders if she will be lucky when she reaches her native Borkezah village in Lofa County. She is hoping to rejoin her husband but is unsure if he is still in the area or has moved away. Even if she does find him, her greatest worry is whether or not he will accept her back. But, she has resolved to re-establish herself in her community, with or without him.
Another member of the convoy, Horace Kennedy, also hopes for a better life in Liberia. He, his wife and their three children are returning to Zorzor after spending six years in exile. "We have decided to come home and try to make life at home since living conditions were hard for us in Guinea," said Horace.
Once home, there are also many challenges to face in rehabilitating destroyed communities. UNHCR and its partners have set up community projects, particularly in the areas of education, agriculture, health and infrastructure to help with the reintegration of returnees.
UNHCR started repatriating Liberian refugees in October last year, and so far has brought home some 7,500 Liberians from neighbouring countries while it's estimated that close to 100,000 returned home using their own means in 2004. The refugee agency expects 340,000 Liberian refugees to return home by the time the repatriation programme ends in December 2007.
By Sarah Brownell