Guinea joins UNHCR return operation to Liberia
GBARNGA, Liberia, Nov 15 (UNHCR) - A first convoy of Liberian refugees has arrived home from neighbouring Guinea, bringing to 1,280 the total number of Liberian returnees in the six weeks since UNHCR started facilitating repatriation from the region.
Last week, Guinea became the latest West African country to join UNHCR's regional facilitated repatriation operation that had started on October 1. The inaugural convoy of 308 Liberian refugees left Lainé camp in Guinea's Nzérékoré area on Wednesday and headed towards Liberia's Bong county.
Among the group was Anne Payne, 19. "I feel like a child again," said the teenager, who played mother to her siblings during their two years in exile. "You can't imagine how excited I am today. I can't believe this day has come."
When rebels attacked her village in Panta in 2002, Payne was separated from her parents and fled for Guinea with two younger brothers and a sister. In Lainé camp, she attended vocational training school and learnt how to sew, which has enabled her to be more self-reliant. A few months ago, she received a letter from her parents telling her they were alive and waiting for her return.
"I know there is almost nothing there, but I still want to go. I believe there is no place like home," said Payne. "I have received a lot from UNHCR and its partners over here. I say a big thank you to them. However, I'm sure that my country and its people need me now."
Wednesday's homebound convoy was welcomed at the St. John bridge, which joins Guinea and Liberia across the Mano river. At the handover ceremony, Nzérékoré governor Colonel Lamine Bangoura said, "Liberians, you can count on your neighbouring Guinea to contribute to the peace process in this region."
On the Liberian side, a "Geo devil", good luck charm for the ethnic Mano people, danced around the convoy and shook hands with the returnees. "Glad to see you and hope you will bring good luck to my family and to the entire Liberia," smiled Hattie Kamara, a 33-year-old returnee with two children. "We are tired of suffering and moving from one place to another. We need peace and a permanent home."
The convoy proceeded to the border town of Guecke, where they were met by government officials and UNHCR's Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello.
"This is the third time UNHCR has organised repatriation for Liberian refugees since the 1980 military coup. On previous occasions, many of the same refugees fled the country again when fighting resumed," Okello told the returnees. "Now it's time to come back, settle down and contribute to building a peaceful nation. No one can do that better than yourself."
At the TV Tower transit centre located on the outskirts of Gbarnga in Bong county, the returnees received food, household items and basic tools to support their reintegration, as well as transport allowances to reach their home villages in other parts of the county. Bong is one of six Liberian counties that have so far been declared safe for return.
Return convoys from Guinea to Liberia are expected to run twice a week. Meanwhile, return convoys and airlifts are also continuing from Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana. As of Sunday, some 1,280 refugees had repatriated to Liberia on UNHCR-organised transport.
"Although about 70,000 Liberian refugees started returning on their own after a peace accord was signed in Accra in August 2003, they often encountered risks," said Okello. "We encourage refugees to return home in safety and dignity with UNHCR assistance."
At the beginning of 2004, there were an estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout the region.
The refugee agency also started helping internally displaced Liberians to return to their home areas last week. "These people are not different from the returning refugees," said Okello. "They suffered the same humiliation and they deserve the same assistance."
By Francesca Fontanini in Liberia
and Fatoumata Diariou Kountara in Guinea