Sierra Leone refugees return to their homes
FREETOWN, Nov. 27 (UNHCR) - For the first time since the civil war began more than a decade ago, the U.N. refugee agency will shortly begin to help thousands of Sierra Leone refugees return to their original homes in a newly declared safe area of the country.
The operation to help an estimated 7,500 civilians go back to Kambia in the north-west of the country will begin in December. The refugees returned to Sierra Leone from Forécariah in neighbouring Guinea at the end of last year, but until their home region was declared safe this week, they were living in temporary settlements at Lungi, north of the capital.
The erratic movement of the returnees reflected the unstable and constantly changing security conditions in many parts of West Africa. During the civil war in Sierra Leone, hundreds of thousands of persons fled to neighbouring countries, but some had to flee again when insecurity swept those regions.
UNHCR helped some Sierra Leonan refugees return to selected safe regions of their homeland, but not to their original villages which were often still in insecure areas. The December operation underscored a widening sense of stability in new parts of the war-wracked country.
UNHCR and local partners have been rehabilitating the local infrastructure in Kambia since September and will continue to support the returnees with clinics, schools, water and sanitation and market place projects, micro-credit schemes and by distributing seeds and tools.
Similar community-based projects may be launched in other parts of the country, especially the badly war-damaged eastern regions, including Kono and Kailahun Districts.
In Kono, the refugee agency is supporting the non-governmental organization World Vision to rebuild basic health care and water services and may open its own office with two local staff in the district capital of Koidu.
Tens of thousands of refugees have already returned to the area 'spontaneously', including 20,000 to Koidu, reflecting increased security problems in Guinea and hopes for a permanent peace in Sierra Leone. Their most critical need is shelter though virtually all of the region's infrastructure including schools and clinics were damaged or destroyed.
In neighbouring Kailahun, UNHCR together with the International Medical Corps rehabilitated three clinics and two supplementary feeding centres and, together with Oxfam, will repair water points in the larger villages before the end of the year.
In the last several months many thousands of persons moved into Kailahun to escape the general insecurity in Guinea and fighting in the Upper Lofa region of Liberia.
In both Kailahun and Kono Districts, in addition to returning Sierra Leone citizens, thousands of Liberians and Guineans escaping civil war and general insecurity in their respective countries have also settled.
UNHCR has begun the voluntary relocation of the Liberians in Kailahun to camps further into the interior of Sierra Leone, away from the sensitive border region and last week began registering Liberians and Guineans in Koidu town.
In another development, the agency has begun work with other organizations to convince disarmed combatants from the war to release abducted girls and women who are still in their control. Recently, eight Guinean women were freed and repatriated to their own country.