UNHCR starts repatriation to Liberia; first refugees arrive on convoy, airlift
BO WATERSIDE, Liberia, Oct 1 (UNHCR) - Today is an animated day in this normally quiet, small border town, as the first convoy of returning Liberian refugees comes home from exile in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
Mobilised for the event, Bo Waterside's residents spent most of the morning preparing to welcome the returnees at the bridge over Mano river, which sets the natural demarcation line between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As dancing groups and musicians rejoiced, the first vehicle in the nine-truck convoy carrying 77 refugees, their personal effects and livestock appeared at a distance, raising dust in its trail.
Since Wednesday, the inaugural convoy of Liberian refugees returning home with UNHCR assistance has been travelling over potholes and muddy spots in order to cross into Liberia on October 1, the date set for the launch of UNHCR's regional repatriation operation.
The poor road conditions slowed the convoy's movement considerably - it took over five hours to cover the 106-km road between the refreshment stop at Blama way station and Zimmi near the border - but the refugees' spirit remained high as they neared home.
"I am happy to be going back home," said Amadu Turay, who was on the first convoy. "Now my high blood pressure has started going down." The 56-year-old man is happy to be returning to join his wife, who had come back earlier on her own.
Julius Mansaray is also excited about starting a new life back home: "I am a farmer and I want to go back to what I know best."
Another refugee, Hawa Famah, is returning with a little dog she adopted while at Tobanda camp. "This dog is named Tobanda because he will always be there to remind me of my stay in Sierra Leone," she said.
Friday's returnees had been living in Gondama and Tobanda camps in eastern Sierra Leone. Most of them are heading to their hometown in Grand Cape Mount county, one of the four areas recently declared safe for return, out of a total of 15 counties in Liberia. Bomi, Margibi and Gbarpolu counties are the other declared safe areas.
Back in Liberia, the returnees will spend the night in Sinje transit centre, a former camp for Sierra Leonean refugees that was revamped after it was destroyed in fighting last year. Strategically located, Sinje camp allows refugees to continue to their final destinations from designated drop-off points within Grand Cape Mount county.
Also on Friday, 100 Liberian refugees arrived in Monrovia on the first UNHCR-organised flight home from Ghana.
"On this occasion, we want to yet again express our sincere gratitude to the country and the people of Ghana, who in such an exemplary way have given refugees the protection, safety and respect they deserve - and who continue to do so. This hospitality will remain in the memory of every Liberian," said UNHCR's Representative in Ghana, Thomas Albrecht, bidding farewell to the refugees at Accra's Kotoka International Airport.
"The refugees leaving on this first voluntary repatriation flight are all too aware of the many difficulties and challenges they will face while trying to rebuild their lives in their home country," added Albrecht. "More progress is still needed in Liberia to make it possible for all traumatised refugees to return in safety and dignity to their homes in all the different parts of the country. But as we witness today the departure of the first refugees on their journey to Liberia, which they so dearly missed, we wish them all the very, very best."
The UNHCR-facilitated repatriation operation concerns some 340,000 Liberian refugees settled mainly in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire.
As the majority of these refugees come from counties that have not yet been declared safe, UNHCR will only be providing transport to those that wish to return to counties that have been cleared for return.
Since Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in August last year, many Liberians in the region have begun returning by their own means, some taking rickety boats and others travelling long distances overland back to Liberia. Following such incidents, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers instructed his office to begin facilitating repatriation to Liberia on October 1.
"For us, it is a matter of properly managing the return of Liberian refugees who on several occasions have suffered tremendous hardship while attempting to return home on their own," said Moses Okello, UNHCR's Representative in Liberia.
This is the third time in 15 years that UNHCR has been engaged in a repatriation programme for Liberians. During the 1991 and 1997 operations, the agency helped some 400,000 Liberian refugees to go home from neighbouring countries.
The agency's reintegration assistance benefits all returnees, even if they are not assisted with transport. Starting in November, UNHCR will also start helping the half million internally displaced Liberians to go back to their communities of origin.
To help returnees cope in their home areas, UNHCR has been rehabilitating schools, health centres, water systems, and roads along planned convoy routes.
However, it takes more to create the right conditions for returnees to rebuild their shattered lives. For UNHCR's Okello, the agency has a vested interest in joining efforts with development actors to ensure sustainability of return. Without long-term development prospects, he warned, "I am afraid that we could again be confronted with a revolving refugee situation."
Between now and December, UNHCR plans to provide transport to close to 30,000 Liberian refugees coming home. It also expects another 20,000 refugees to make the trip on their own, following the more than 50,000 who have already done so since the beginning of the year.