A Sierra Leonean family comes home
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, July 26 (UNHCR) - Ambulai and Hawa Lumeh were newly-weds when they fled Sierra Leone in 1992. Twelve years and four children later, they returned to their homeland on the last UNHCR convoy from Liberia last week.
Ambulai, now 60, cried when he saw his home village of Heigbema in Pujehun district on Thursday. He and his family had survived a traumatic flight, years in exile and the muddy drive back to find a home levelled by the decade-long civil war.
In an emotional reunion with his long-lost relatives, Ambulai was devastated to learn that some of his loved ones had been killed when rebels attacked the village and that his house was now a flat piece of land. Mud and thatched houses had sprung up in the debris of the village as returning refugees like himself sought to rebuild their lives from scratch.
"Seeing a man who is old enough to be my father cry was a bit hard for me," said UNHCR staff member Sulaiman Momodu, describing the emotional homecoming. "But it was a very rewarding experience."
The Lumeh family were among some 178,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who returned home from the region under the UN refugee agency's repatriation programme after the civil war ended in 2001. The return operation itself ended on July 21 this year.
Prior to their return, Ambulai and his family had lived in VOA camp near the Liberian capital, Monrovia, for 12 years. During this time, they were displaced by Liberia's own 14-year civil war, and survived several close shaves.
Despite the challenges ahead, Ambulai is happy to be back in Sierra Leone. "I have returned home for good and for this, I am very grateful to UNHCR," he said. "If I ever have to go to Liberia again, I pray that it will not be as a refugee but maybe to visit friends."
As with the other returnees, the family received food rations, relief items and agricultural tools to help them restart their lives back home. Ambulai plans to resume his life as a farmer while Hawa hopes to start a small business.
They also hope to teach their children - two girls and two boys who were born in exile and only speak Liberian English - how to speak the local dialect, Mende.
To help them reintegrate in their war-torn homeland, UNHCR and its partners, together with the Sierra Leonean government, will implement various community projects through to the end of 2005. These small-scale projects include skills training, the construction of local health clinics and wells, and the upgrading of schools.