UNHCR marks the end of the return programme for thousands of displaced in Liberia
SALALA, BONG COUNTY, Liberia, April 21 (UNHCR) - Liberian Vice-President Joseph N. Boakai, UNHCR officials and Bangladeshi UN peace-keeping troops joined formerly displaced people and hundreds of other guests on Thursday to celebrate the successful completion of the return process for the thousands of Liberians who fled their homes during the civil war.
Four hundred guests gathered in an open tent in Salala Camp, once the crowded home of 23,000 displaced people, to mark the end of a process in which UNHCR has helped 314,095 Liberians return to their original homes.
In a speech in which he thanked UNHCR for its help and commitment in the field since the beginning of the crisis in 2002, Vice President Boakai said: "Today is a very special day for us; it marks not only an end but a new beginning for Liberia."
"Our people had to flee their homes with little or nothing; some with only babies and the elderly on bare backs, trekking for hundred of miles to a strange place, called an IDP [Internally Displaced Persons'] camp," he said, adding that he too fled the fighting. "I just took my bag and we ran away," he said.
UNHCR, whose work normally focuses on protection and assistance to refugees who have crossed international borders, officially started its work with internally displaced people living in refugee-like conditions in Liberian camps in November 2004, a programme which formally closed on 31 March, this year.
Out of the 22 camps and 13 spontaneous settlements for internally displaced people, 22 have now been closed by the Liberian government.
In Salala camp, where most of the people seeking shelter there arrived having fled fighting in 2002 and 2003, nearly all huts have now been demolished. Many former camp residents had travelled a long way to be present at the ceremony and while waiting for the official guests to arrive from Monrovia they walked around, looking for the place their shelter used to be, remembering their former neighbours and exchanging news of different families and friends.
Those who have now returned to their original homes were given assistance to do so, including return packages and transport allowances. Most of the former camp residents went back to Lofa, Bong and Bomi counties in northern and western Liberia, which are some of UNHCR's main areas of return.
In places like this, the UN refugee agency is now involved in implementing community-based recovery programmes and engaging in a wide range of reintegration activities to help returnees, former displaced people and the local communities build a new life. Schools, health centres and water points are being reconstructed, roads rehabilitated and communities are being encouraged to apply for skills training programmes, agricultural and other income-generating projects. In 2005 alone, over 1,000 community empowerment projects were implemented.
However, there are still challenges ahead. "Return is just the beginning on the long road to recovery and reintegration," UNHCR Representative Mengesha Kebede said. "There is still a growing need in communities for basic services," he added, appealing to donor countries to continue supporting UNHCR in fulfilling its mandate. In December 2005, UNHCR appealed for an additional US$13.7 million to support this work during 2006. So far it has received $5.1 million.
To symbolize the beginning of a new phase in Liberia's history, Vice President Boakai, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General Jordan Ryan and UNHCR Representative Mengesha Kebede walked to one of the very few remaining huts in Salala camp, and using a pickaxe demolished it to the sound of applause. "We demolish a hut to show the world that we Liberians are ready for a new life" the Vice President said. "Let there be no war, no more."
By Annette Rehrl in Salala Camp, Bong County, Liberia