Stranded Liberian refugees return home from Côte d'Ivoire
MONROVIA, Liberia, May 27 (UNHCR) - More than 200 Liberian refugees have ended months of ordeal in strife-torn Côte d'Ivoire by returning home as the UN refugee agency resumed airlifts to Liberia this week.
They were among hundreds of Liberian refugees who had moved into the UNHCR office compound in Abidjan in December following the outbreak of post-election violence in Côte d'Ivoire. The refugees had previously been well integrated in their host country but were targeted in recent months amid allegations that Liberian mercenaries were fighting for former president Laurent Gbagbo in the west.
Earlier this year, as the fighting intensified across Abidjan, the refugees asked UNHCR to repatriate them to Liberia. One group was flown home in March before growing insecurity forced the operation to be suspended temporarily.
Margaret, 26, said her husband "ran away to Ghana" when people came looking for Liberian men. She recalled her experience at the overcrowded Abidjan compound: "As a pregnant woman, it was very hard for me during the fighting in Abidjan. Bullets were flying all over the place and we were sleeping outside the UN office. Bullets hit two people where I was. I even fell down. There was no food, no water, nothing. It was also very dangerous to access medical services."
With calm slowly returning in Côte d'Ivoire, UNHCR resumed the air repatriation earlier this week. Margaret, who had given birth two weeks ago, was on one of those flights. "It was not easy but by the grace of God I am now home," she said after arriving at Roberts International Airport near the Liberian capital, Monrovia, where the returnees were screened by security and immigration staff.
So far this year, UNHCR has helped a total of 434 Liberian refugees to go home from Abidjan. Most of this week's returnees have been in exile for nearly 20 years. Several were born in exile and are more fluent in French than English, Liberia's official language. UNHCR provided them with voluntary repatriation grants, including transportation allowances to go to their final destinations.
One of the younger returnees also received a surprise homecoming present. Soon after landing at Roberts International Airport, 16-year-old Mekape Tonan was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she gave birth to a baby boy. UNHCR is helping them as well as Tonan's mother and siblings by covering the medical bills, accommodation and providing a modest subsistence allowance before they return to their village in Nimba county in eastern Liberia.
Since 2004, UNHCR has helped more than 170,000 Liberian refugees to return home from the region. The agency has been supporting Liberian returnee communities by rehabilitating schools, clinics and roads. It is also providing water and sanitation facilities and supporting income-generation projects across the country.
Meanwhile, back in Abidjan, there are still some refugees at UNHCR's office compound who have not yet made up their minds about repatriation. New groups have also approached the office to find out more about returning to Liberia.
Although the Liberian war ended in 2003, there are still some 24,000 Liberian refugees in Côte d'Ivoire, mainly living in the western and south-western cities of Tabou and Guiglo.
By Sulaiman Momodu in Monrovia and Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba in Geneva