Guinea: Return to a Ghost Town
GUECKEDOU, Guinea - An adorable baby with puckered lips stares from a tattered wall poster in one room of the trashed UNHCR office.
"Kissing war," it says. "You've been kissed, Muuuuahhhhhh." It is the only bright spot in a mess of littered papers, upturned tables, broken cabinets and smashed chairs.
We went to UNHCR's old Guéckédou office to salvage what was left of the ransacked building and bring it to Kissidougou, our new base operations since being forced from south-western Guinea by a series of rebel attacks in early December.
Guéckédou is located on the edge Guinea's so-called "Parrot's Beak," a diamond-rich thumb of territory jutting into troubled Sierra Leone. The Parrot's Beak today shelters 140,000 of Guinea's total population of some 450,000 Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees. But the proliferation of arms and fighters in the tri-state region where Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia meet has made the Parrot's Beak a very dangerous place.
As we worked to load two trucks with items salvaged from the UNHCR office, a boy only slightly taller than the AK-47 he was carrying swaggered towards us firing several rounds in the air.
"I am the boss here," he shouted. "Who are you?"
Our Guinean army escorts, armed with automatic rifles, rushed toward the boy, who immediately threw himself at their feet. After a few minutes, he stood up smiling sheepishly. We saw him later manning one of the checkpoints on the road out of town. He snapped a salute as we passed.
A resident said the boy belonged to the ULIMO faction, identified by a funky uniform that included an orange parka emblazoned with the words "New York," baggy jeans, sandals and a blue bandanna around his head. ULIMO is a rebel group in Liberia. It is but one of several armed factions operating in the troubled area.
As UNHCR technicians dismantled the office antenna, several military vehicles passed by on the street. They included small trucks mounted with machine guns and carrying young boys brandishing automatic weapons.
Guéckédou remains a ghost town. Graffiti on a wall in a devastated part of the downtown area declared: "RFDG in action," a reference to a home-grown rebel group. "No monkey can try General Honey."
Oumar Kamano, who used to work in the UNHCR office in Guéckédou, returned with us for the first time since he left before dawn on December 7, when most of the town's 9,000 residents fled. In an attack the night before, the rebels abducted a UNHCR radio operator who was held captive for 47 days before being freed in Liberia.
Kamano recalled that during the attack, he listened on his own radio handset as the rebels announced they were taking over the UNHCR office.
"We are now in the UNHCR base," one rebel announced gleefully. "We see a bottle of whisky - Chivas. We are enjoying it now."
Now, as he picked through the debris of the trashed office, Kamano spotted a battered whiskey box. "This is what they found," he said, laughing.
But his laughter soon turned to silence. Walking around the corner from the office, Kamano saw his house had been burned to the ground. Only ashes and the bones of his dog remained. Kamano had built the house with money he saved after joining UNHCR in 1993.
"My heart melted when I saw it," he said later, slumping inside the UNHCR car and sweating profusely. "But what can I do. There is no protection here."
On the road leaving town, several women headed north carrying huge bundles of belongings on their heads. Cars loaded down with furniture sped past, a sure sign that residents still fear a rebel warning that they will return before the rainy season begins in June.
By Fernando del Mundo
(Editor's Note: UNHCR and its partners assist more than 400,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Guinea. Many had been cut off for months in the isolated Parrot's Beak area before aid agencies were able to resume operations in late February. If security allows, UNHCR hopes to relocate many of the refugees to safer areas further inland before the rainy season begins.)