Guinea Update: UNHCR Team Reaches Guéckédou
UNHCR Team Reaches Guéckédou
For the first time in several weeks, a UNHCR team was able to travel to the town of Guéckédou in south-western Guinea to assess refugee conditions in the strife-torn area.
Security concerns, however, prevented the team from visiting outlying areas of Guéckédou Rurale, where some 280,000 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone were housed in a string of border camps. The fate of many of the refugees remains unknown following a series of attacks in the Guéckédou region beginning in early December. UNHCR's office was burned and several vehicles destroyed in the attacks, prompting the agency to withdraw from the region. The withdrawal also followed an attack by unidentified rebels in September in the town of Macenta, where UNHCR's head of office was murdered and another staff member abducted. She was later released.
The UNHCR assessment team, which went to the region over the weekend, was able to examine conditions in some camps between Guéckédou and Kissidougou, 75 kms to the north-east. Two camps had been burned. Baladou, a camp 40 kms north of Guéckédou with a previous refugee population of between 5,000 and 6,000, is now empty and destroyed. At the nearby camp of Katkama, which previously had a population of 15,000, UNHCR staff reported seeing only a few hundred. They were told the vast majority of the refugees had fled into the bush.
At Nyaedou camp, 15 kms north of Guéckédou, the team found between 21,000 and 23,000 refugees in a site that previously sheltered 15,000. The refugees were in fairly good physical condition, but in urgent need of food.
Relief supplies sent to Kissidougou late last week will be transferred to Nyaedou as soon as possible so the refugees will not be compelled to continue moving northwards in search of assistance at Massakoundou and other camps closer to Kissidougou. Massakoundou camp, 8 kms west of Kissidougou, was built to house 20,000 refugees and is jammed with some 40,000 people who have fled there from the Guéckédou area. The crush of refugees is severely straining the camp's infrastructure.
The government on Saturday gave approval for UNHCR to develop a new site at Sangardo, 30 kms north-west of Kissidougou. UNHCR will begin work immediately on the site, which will be designed for 20,000 people.
Emergency Teams Arriving
Meanwhile, members of three UNHCR emergency teams deployed from offices worldwide began arriving over the weekend in preparation for deployment in Guinea and Sierra Leone. The three teams - 46 people in all - will join UNHCR's current staff in the region in trying to provide protection and assistance for tens of thousands of refugees. Their mission is to provide immediate emergency assistance; to assist with internal relocation to relatively safe areas within Guinea; and to assist those refugees who wish to return to Sierra Leone. One of the teams will work in Guinea, one will conduct cross-border operations and one will work in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leonean Refugees Going Home
In the Guinean capital, Conakry, more refugees trying to return to Sierra Leone arrived over the weekend at a UNHCR/MSF transit centre and at the Sierra Leonean Embassy. At present, some 1,600 refugees are waiting in Conakry for transport assistance to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Over the past week, a vessel organized by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration has made two voyages carrying 604 refugees who wanted to go to Freetown. A third voyage was expected to depart Conakry Tuesday evening. The Sierra Leone Embassy also operates its own ship.
Food distribution and assistance has been stepped up at the Sierra Leone and Liberian embassies in Conakry to refugees gathering there while they await their departure home. An estimated 25,000 refugees have returned to Sierra Leone since September, about 80 percent of them former refugees from the camps in Guéckédou and Forécariah.
An additional transit centre is being built in Freetown to receive the increasing numbers of returnees. Once processed by UNHCR in Freetown, returnees who are from government-controlled areas of Sierra Leone will be provided transport home. Returnees from rebel-controlled areas will be taken to reception centres in Waterloo and Jui, or directly to returnee settlements in government areas.
The number of refugees remaining in Guinea is now estimated at 328,000 Sierra Leoneans and 122,000 Liberians.