Liberia: Locals Struggle to Cope With Fleeing Ivorians

Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
A street scene in Bouake, a town in the north that is controlled by the rebels.

Nimba County — Albertine Yahwah sits on a hard wooden bench, cradling her little baby in her arms. The 20 year-old walked from the Ivory Coast with her two children and her husband to reach this small town across the border in Northern Liberia.

Avoiding the main roads, she trekked in her slippers through forests and over broken bridges. It took her three days. Exhausted and hungry, the young mother explains why she fled her home and the country she loves.

"In my village, while we were voting, Gbagbo people came to force us to vote for them and then Outtara people would come and force you to vote for them. That's why I got scared and I came," she says. Albertine comes from Danane, the heartland of Allassane Ouattara's rebel- held north. The former Prime Minister was declared the new President in the November elections before the courts overturned the result.

The Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has support in the Christian south, issued a rival claim to victory but then the UN Security Council passed a resolution to formally recognise Ouattara as the President. It has left the country split down the middle, with two Presidents trying to claim power. The army and security forces back Gbagbo while Ouattara has support from former rebels, the UN, African leaders and the West.

"If you vote for Gbagbo and he doesn't win, they will harm you or if you vote for Alassane and he doesn't win, it's the same," says Albertine. The young mother and her family know only too well what it is like to witness war. Eight years ago, thousands died during the conflict between the rebel-held Muslim north and the government-controlled Christian south.

Parts of her hometown were completely destroyed in the bombings. They are now fleeing, panicked that the brutal fighting many saw in 2002 will be repeated. At least 20 people have already died in clashes in Abidjan, renewing fears the country could slide back into a civil war. "I was afraid to walk on the main road," she says. "We did not eat anything [for three days]. When we crossed [the border] people felt sorry for us and gave us food to eat."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says the official number stands close to 4500 and it is rising. But other NGOs, the Danish Refugee Council and Equip Liberia, say since fighting erupted in parts of the country, border monitors are being overrun by Ivorians trying to get into Liberia. The majority are women, children and the elderly and they say the numbers are over 5000. Instead of refugee camps, they are staying with Liberian families in their homes.

"Since the arrival of the Ivorians, things have been very tough," says Samuel Woleh, the head of a family of ten in the nearby town of Karnplay. Woleh is housing five Ivorians in his mother's small mud hut. "The past year we never make a farm so things are getting very hard. Before they came we were cooking six cups of rice a day, now we are cooking ten," he says.

Liberia is still recovering from 14 years of civil war. The country is not producing enough food to feed its own people, so an influx of refugees, especially during the festive season, is putting a strain on towns and villages in the border region.

"The policy in Liberia is not to have a camp situation," says George Francis Iwa from the Danish Refugee Council. "If their kith and kin come across from the Ivory Coast, initially they should be able to absorb that shock but the capacity is very limited," he says. The United Nations High Commission of Refugees and the World Food Programme say they have enough provisions and supplies for up to ten thousand refugees.

An hour from Karnplay along a dusty, winding track is Kissiplay, a small town with just one school and no clinic. Since the Ivorians began to flee, the area has more than doubled in size.

"The situation here is that there is no food. The little we have here is the food we're sharing with the people," says Peter Duo, the Town Chief of Kissiplay. "We don't have toilets or no good drinking water also. All the people here are hungry," he adds.

More than a thousand Ivorian refugees are crammed into the town's small mud huts. Liberian families have given what little space they have to their desperate neighbours. They too have been in a similar situation during the Liberian civil war.

While food and supplies are being made available, another worry is clean drinking water and manpower in the region's clinics. "We've informed the UNHCR that we are seeing an influx of patients so we need extra support," says J. Romax Zizi Jr, the Officer in Charge of the region's Referral Health Centre.

"Those patients are mostly here for malaria, acute respiratory tract infections that has to do with coughing and sexually transmitted infections,' he adds. Equip Liberia; an NGO that runs many of the smaller clinics along the border areas says their staff is also reporting an increase in the number of patients. Humanitarian organisations and the government of Liberia are working hard to support the Ivorian refugees.

The Liberian government says it is not going to send people back to the Ivory Coast and that it has plans to tackle the situation if it intensifies. Food and supplies are being moved from warehouses in the cities to be distributed to the border regions. But if the violence in the Ivory Coast spreads, the impact on neighbouring countries would be grave.

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