Situation dire for hundreds sheltering in UNHCR's Monrovia compound
MONROVIA, Liberia, July 23 (UNHCR) - Increasingly desperate for food and pleading for evacuation, hundreds of Sierra Leonean refugees jammed the UNHCR compound in war-ravaged Monrovia on Wednesday amid continued fighting between government troops and rebels.
UNHCR staff in the Liberian capital said the refugee agency's compound in the Mamba Point area was sheltering more than 800 people - some 600 of them Sierra Leonean refugees who earlier fled their camps on the outskirts of the city. At least 160 Liberians and several nationals of other West African nations also huddled in the compound. Hundreds of them had stormed into the UNHCR premises on Monday after a mortar shell hit the nearby United States residential compound, killing and wounding scores of people. Two more were reported killed in the area on Wednesday.
"You cannot control who comes into the compound," said a UNHCR staff member. "When the bombardment starts and the main gate is opened to let in Sierra Leonean refugees - some of whom have been going in and out in search of food and water - large numbers of Liberians also come in with them."
He said many refugees and displaced were also moving from one UN or embassy building to another as rumours swirled over imminent attacks on various compounds around the city.
Despite reports of a rebel-ordered ceasefire, sporadic shooting and shelling continued. Government fighters on various streets in the capital were also seen firing their weapons indiscriminately, with no apparent opposition in sight.
At the UNHCR office, hallways and stairways were jammed with men, women and children sleeping on the bare floor, wherever they could find space. During lulls in the fighting, children played on the stairs or along the corridors. But when the shooting resumed, they immediately dropped to the floor.
"They are children of war, they know what to do," said the UNHCR staff member, explaining that "everybody dives for cover at the sound of rocket and mortar fire."
Taking advantage of breaks in the fighting, adults dashed out to replenish meagre supplies of food and water. A makeshift market in the neighbourhood is selling a limited amount of foodstuffs. On Tuesday, a number of people sheltering at the compound came back with rice and vegetables, but as soon as they started preparing their food on open fires, the shelling resumed and women raced back into the relative safety of the UNHCR building.
By Wednesday morning, the compound had run out of food, and few people had any money left to go out and buy provisions. Moses Okello, UNHCR's evacuated representative for Liberia, said the situation was desperate.
"It's a very difficult and desperate situation, not only in the compounds, but all over," said Okello from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, where he and other international staff had been evacuated. "The refugees and displaced who have made it to the Mamba Point area can't move much. Virtually all UN offices and embassy compounds are filled with people. So far, we've managed to bring in some water, but the last food, distributed two weeks ago, is running out."
UNHCR had more than 30 local staff in Monrovia, but some have been forced to flee their homes and others are out of contact. A few have managed to get their families out of the city. A UNHCR ambulance, staffed by a local non-governmental organisation, Mercy, continues to rush around Monrovia picking up wounded and bringing them to clinics, Okello said.
Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees have been awaiting evacuation in a temporarily suspended UNHCR emergency sealift that began on July 4. The ship, the MV Overbeck, had to return empty to Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Monday because it was unable to dock safely in Monrovia. So far, the Overbeck has evacuated 1,250 Sierra Leonean refugees in four voyages.
In all, some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees had been living in and around Monrovia in four main camps prior to the latest fighting. UNHCR has lost contact with many of them.
Okello said that as soon as the security situation allows, UNHCR international staff will return to Monrovia and the Overbeck will resume the emergency evacuation of Sierra Leoneans.
"We're ready at a moment's notice to go back," he said, "as soon as the situation permits."