Host community sends off Liberian "brothers and sisters"
LARGO CAMP, Sierra Leone, Oct 28 (UNHCR) - For two years, the people of Largo in Sierra Leone lived side by side, a model of peaceful co-existence between refugees and their host community.
So when it came time for some of them to go back to Liberia, their neighbours threw an emotional party to say goodbye to the refugees they have come to call "our brothers and sisters". It was the first farewell ceremony to be organised by a refugee-hosting community since the start of voluntary repatriation to Liberia on October 1.
"It is not our wish that you should go now. We have enjoyed a peaceful co-existence and you are free to stay in our community as long as you wish," local chief Brima Kinnie told the departing group of 36 on Tuesday. "However, if your desire is to return home now, we can only pray for lasting peace in your country and we wish you a safe journey."
Located in eastern Sierra Leone's Kenema province, Largo camp received its first Liberian refugees in September 2002. "When we were coming, the host community welcomed us amidst jubilations. And when we are leaving again, they are doing the same, which shows that they are indeed hospitable," said refugee camp chairman Abbacus Jallah.
The farewell ceremony included an exciting football match between the refugees and the host community, followed by a disco party.
Moriba Foday, a representative of Sierra Leone's National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), had witnessed the land negotiations with the local community to establish the camp back in 2002. He described Tuesday's ceremony as "a great humanitarian victory for UNHCR, NaCSA and partners."
Beaming with smiles, Ibrahima Coly, who heads UNHCR's office in Kenema, noted that as an initiative of the host community, the symbolic ceremony was proof of the warm and friendly relationship they have with the refugees.
Coly explained the voluntary nature of repatriation to Liberia, reiterating that UNHCR is currently only facilitating the return of refugees who have expressed their strong desire to go home. He stressed that nobody was forced to go back, but that "when you feel like going home, you will be assisted to do so."
Most of the refugees in Largo camp originate from Liberia's Lofa county, which has yet to be declared safe. Those repatriating are mainly going to Grand Cape Mount county, one of the six counties that have been declared safe for return.
On behalf of the first convoy of homebound refugees, Sarah Koroma expressed gratitude to the government of Sierra Leone and the people of Largo for hosting them and to UNHCR for its humanitarian service.
"We will never forget the assistance of UNHCR in transporting us from the border and taking care of us in the camp," said the mother of five. Separated from her husband over two years ago, she said she was eagerly looking forward to joining him again in Grand Cape Mount county.
Largo camp's inaugural group is joining convoys from other camps in Sierra Leone, converging at a way station near Kenema before crossing back to Liberia on Friday.
By Sulaiman Momodu
UNHCR Sierra Leone