24 January 2001

Guinea: "We Want To Go Home" Refugees Beg UNHCR

Nyaedou, Guinea, near the border with Sierra Leone and Guinea — "We wan go, we wan go" is the chorus of fear and desperation, in adult and children's voices, that rings around Nyaedou Refugee Camp in southwestern Guinea. The refugees want to go home. Nyaedou is fifteen kilometres from Gueckedou, near the Liberian border, where more fighting was reported on Tuesday.

The refugees at Nyaedou, most of them Sierra Leonean with a generous sprinkling of Liberians, say they have reached their limit. They are demanding, begging and imploring the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, to organize their repatriation immediately.

These latest appeals come after the refugees were once again forced to hide in the bush after the attack at Gueckedou. But the refugees say they are tired of hiding and must be helped to cross the borders back into their own unstable and insecure countries.

That was the overwhelming message that greeted senior regional officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees when a delegation visited the camp at Nyaedou on Wednesday.

The consensus seemed to be, if we have to die, then let us die at home, but we are not prepared to stay in Guinea and die. Many of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees have been in the Nyaedou-Gueckedou area for several years, though new arrivals show up at the camp almost every day.

A spokesman and interpreter for the refugees spoke on their behalf in Krio (pidgin English spoken in Sierra Leone) as he translated for the regional UNHCR director, Abou Moussa, who addressed thousands of assembled refugees.

Moussa pledged that the UN would do all it could to help those who wanted to go home - and the few at Nyaedou camp who appear to want to stay in Guinea - saying the choice was theirs. Some of his reassurances were met with applause and other with groans and more cries of "we want to go home".

The UNHCR was planning to deliver food aid to Nyaedou on Wednesday, but its implementing partner, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, considered that it was unsafe to undertake the operation.

The population at Nyaedou camp has more than doubled to over thirty thousand refugees since fighting erupted in Guinea's southwest border area last year.

Jittery crowds mobbed a visiting reporter, and a sole Guinean soldier as escort, all shouting at once and jostling to share their similar stories of fear, intimidation and desperation. All seemed to have one joint resolve, to leave Guinea as soon as possible.

Almost without exception, the refugees said they were frightened and nervous of the gunfire and fighting close by in Gueckedou. They were also fearful of being targeted by Guinean soldiers and civilians as 'rebels'.

Liberian and Sierra Leonean mercenaries are widely suspected of being part of the dissident forces that have infiltrated Guinean territory across the long border with its two neighbours. Many of the refugees said they felt trapped in the crossfire, but with nowhere to run.

Hawa Turay, 27, is Sierra Leonean. Her husband was killed in the civil war back home, so she fled to Guinea in 1998. She told allAfrica.com that Nyaedou had become totally unsafe, even when they took refuge in the bush. "Yesterday night, we packed our bundles, because we saw soldiers and vehicles coming our way. We are afraid of them. So, we really want to go, I really want to go".

Turay said she preferred to go home and die in Sierra Leone, rather than die in Guinea. "It's better for the vultures to eat my body over there, than eat my body here," said Turay. "I really want to go home. So I'm kindly asking you to tell the UNHCR to immediately repatriate us, because we are afraid."

Komba Amadu Tachequee, a 31 year old is also from Sierra Leone. He lamented what he called a miserable life and erratic food distribution at Nyaedou Camp and said he was fed up of hearing gunfire and bombardment in Gueckedou. Tachequee acknowledged that the situation in Sierra Leone was far from perfect or peaceful, but added "Sierra Leone is not safe, Guinea is not safe. So we prefer, if there is no alternative, to go home."

A Liberian refugee at Nyaedou, Stephen Babue, told allAfrica.com he felt insecure. As his fellow Sierra Leonean refugees were speaking, Babue chimed in with his contribution. "The cry from all refugees now is to be repatriated. Right now, nothing is better than repatriation."

Turay, Tachequee and Babue all said they were fed up of important visitors from the United Nations. "We are tired of the delegations. They know our problems, but they are pretending not to know", said Tachequee. "I don't want UNHCR to provoke us, we the refugees. Everyday they come here with a vehicle saying they are going to take us away, so let them take us away".

Despite fear, frustration, boredom and night-time cold, the refugee community at Nyaedou lives in an orderly, but dusty camp, with a series of thatched roof mud huts and dormitories. Most refugees appeared to be healthy and well fed, apart from a handful of sickly-looking babies strapped to their mothers' backs.

Nyaedou camp has a clinic, a school, a small market and a food distribution centre as well as a gender-based violence project which has its own building.

The road leading from Kissidougou, the regional hub for humanitarian agencies about sixty five kilometres from Nyaedou, was mostly deserted apart from a small number of bikes and giant trucks, heading away from Gueckedou, Nyaedou and the conflict zone.

Every vehicle was filled to the brim with people and overloaded with all their belongings - from mattresses to motorbikes and huge bunches of plaintain and bananas - strapped to the sides and backs of the trucks, making cumbersome and very slow progress.

Part 1


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