Guinea Update: Witnesses say panicked refugees returned to Sierra Leone
Thousands of frightened Sierra Leonean refugees from camps in Guinea's south-western Guéckédou province may have fled in panic back across the border to Sierra Leone during fighting in the region in early December, refugees arriving in the interior of Guinea told UNHCR.
Refugees interviewed by a UNHCR team in Massakoundou camp, 8 kms west of the central Guinean town of Kissidougou, said thousands fled the Guéckédou area camps in a wave of panic that swept through south-western Guinea three weeks ago during a series of rebel attacks in the region. Security conditions have prevented UNHCR staff from visiting areas to the south-west of Guéckédou town, where there were previously some 150,000 refugees in a string of border camps.
Although the information cannot be verified, local sources said thousands of people fled sites close to the border, including Konin and Fangamandou. They said only 6,000 to 8,000 of the original population of 15,000 remained in Konin, 3 kms from the Sierra Leone border. Sierra Leonean refugees from camps further to the east, around the town of Guéckédou, are also reported to have moved towards the border.
Refugees reportedly fled camps that had not come under direct attack, apparently panicked by growing resentment among local Guineans as well as by reports of nearby rebel attacks. Tension remains high throughout the south, with government forces deeply suspicious of Sierra Leoneans moving in any direction and attempting to restrict refugees to existing camps.
North of Guéckédou, where fighters from Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front made their push into Guinea, refugees told UNHCR staff Thursday of being chased by fighters from camp to camp. A 61-year-old man recounted how refugees in Bodou camp were startled by gunfire on 4 December. About half the camp's population of 17,000 ran to Katkama, a neighbouring site. The man said the refugees were chased for several kilometres by armed men he and others identified as Sierra Leonean rebels. Six days after the refugees reached Katkama, Guinean military helicopters engaged the rebels nearby. The fighting then pushed the combined populations of four camps in the Katkama area onto the roads again. The refugees spent several days in temporary shelters before reaching Massakoundou, about 75 kms north of Guéckédou.
Most Sierra Leonian refugees interviewed by UNHCR expressed a desire to return home - even if they cannot go immediately to their original villages. They said they prefer to be settled in government-controlled areas of Sierra Leone rather than remain in areas of Guinea that could be vulnerable to rebel attack. Refugees in Massakoundou held up hand-lettered signs saying, "We need UNHCR, not Massakoundou".
A UNHCR medical and sanitation team assessed conditions of refugees and displaced Guineans in villages stretching 85 kms north of Kissidougou. Most were in good health. The largest site visited, Nianfrando, was sheltering about 4,000 Sierra Leoneans and more families were still emerging from the bush in search of aid. Refugees at Nianfrando received food this week and are building temporary shelters. In villages with smaller numbers of displaced, local residents have taken in refugees into their homes.
NGOs have resumed health services in Massakoundou, designed to house 20,000 refugees but currently jammed with some 35,000 - many from abandoned Guéckédou area camps to the south. Much of the refugee medical infrastructure has been destroyed and trained refugee staff have fled. On Friday, UNHCR sent two ambulances from Conakry to Kissidougou for use by health partners MSF and IFRC.
Deployment of Peacekeepers
UNHCR welcomes the decision Thursday by ECOWAS member states to deploy 1,676 troops to secure Guinea's border with Liberia and Sierra Leone within one month. The deployment may enable UNHCR to return on a more permanent basis to southern Guinea to give much-needed assistance to tens of thousands of refugees.
Return to Sierra Leone
A fourth UNHCR-organized ship carrying 351 Sierra Leonean refugees voluntarily returning to Freetown left Conakry on Thursday evening. This latest voyage brings to 1,212 the total number of Sierra Leonean refugees so far assisted by UNHCR to return home. An additional 2,105 refugees are waiting in Conakry for boat transport home. More than 75 percent of the refugees returning to Sierra Leone are unable to return directly to their villages and have the option of returning to areas in the Lungi Peninsula or to temporary sites in Bo and Kenema.