IRIN) - NGOs working in northeastern Liberia say many of the 30,000 refugees arriving from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire are reporting widespread violence and intimidation from both Ivoirian government troops and soldiers from the former rebel Forces Nouvelles operating in the west.
Speaking from the Liberian capital Monrovia, the head of the Liberia-based NGO, Equip Liberia, David Waines, said the initial refugee flow had been quite small, with 70-100 Ivoirians a day crossing over in the immediate aftermath of the 28 November presidential run-off election.
Waines said refugee numbers went up dramatically as the Ivoirian political crisis worsened, with Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara both laying claim to the presidency and Gbagbo refusing to yield to international pressure to step down. According to Waines, the exodus began in earnest on 17 December, the day after the abortive march by Ouattara supporters on the state TV centre Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) and the most serious episodes of violence in Abidjan, and that at least 1,000 Ivoirians a day had been coming into Liberia since.
“We have about 17,000 refugees registered and probably a total of about 30,000.” Waines told IRIN. He pointed out that formal registration was a long process and many of the new arrivals had not yet been fully documented. The Liberian government anticipates at least 100,000 refugees coming in.
In Loguatu on the eastern Liberian border, refugees queued to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) teams, who are working to clear a backlog of Ivoirians who arrived several days ago as well as receive those newly entering.
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Like Doueu, the majority of refugees IRIN spoke with said they had not witnessed violence themselves but were scared of civil war breaking out if the situation continued. However, some talked of being directly threatened and seeing people attacked. Djontan Sangaré, 17, who arrived two weeks ago with her mother and grandmother from Toulepleu on the western border of Côte d'Ivoire, said she had seen people being beaten up and that the family received threats. “We are for Ouattara and they are against that in the area we come from,” she said. “We were scared we would be hurt by Gbagbo supporters.”
Many of those leaving Ivoirian territory have ethnic ties with communities across the border and are leaving towns and villages that were badly affected by earlier conflicts, notably serious outbreaks of fighting in 2002 when the Ivoirian civil war hit the west.
More aid needed
In Kissiplay, a village close to Loguatu, locals said they were sheltering refugees and providing them food ,but that houses were becoming saturated with up to 20 people sleeping in each room.
Villagers said there were more than 900 refugees in the settlement compared to 600 locals and this was causing food and water shortages. Refugees told IRIN that many women and children were fleeing alone, leaving male family members to monitor the situation. Many of those who had walked across are pregnant or suffering from malnutrition.
Relief organizations working on the ground are calling for more resources so as to provide adequate shelter, water and medical supplies. Equip Liberia has been active in Nimba County for the past 25 years. “We have 23 clinics in Nimba and 65 percent of those coming in for treatment are Ivoirian," Waines told IRIN. He confirmed that 65 percent of the refugees were under 18, with a large presence of women and young children.
Noting that there had so far been few cases of acute malnutrition, Waines warned of the need to control malaria and to provide proper treatment for women in childbirth. He praised the response of the Liberian host community. “I am amazed at how hospitable, accommodating and welcoming the Liberians have been."
UNHCR Resident Representative in Liberia Ibrahim Coly said relief efforts were being stepped up.
“Registration is ongoing and this is the first step," Coly told IRIN in Monrovia. "We are giving health assistance, supplying water and sanitation and non-food items such as blankets and lamps as well as protection to the refugees."
Coly said the provision of food aid had also been taken into account. "We have not started food assistance yet. WFP [UN World Food Programme] should be receiving five metric tons of food today which we hope to distribute soon."
Noting the strain on Liberians adapting to the refugee influx, Coly said more help would be at hand. "Assistance will be expanded to local communities too because they are already limited in resources. We are trying to boost their facilities by providing water, for example, and healthcare."
While the UNHCR had signaled earlier that it wanted to avoid setting up camps, Coly said UNHCR was now pursuing that option.
"We hope to get clearance from the government to open a refugee camp in Nimba County to take the strain off the local communities and to make the refugees easier to reach. We are confronted with a problem of logistics because the roads are bad and it takes time to reach the refugees. The camp would reduce this burden."
Coly said that agencies were already beginning to mobilize funding.
"We have UNHCR funds but we have agreed in meetings that we need to make a joint appeal and we will be discussing this with the regional offices and launch as soon as possible. Once we have launched the appeal and get more funding, we can hire more staff and buy more equipment."
Photo: Sarah Birke/IRIN
|UNHCR workers register Ivoirians arriving in Nimba County, Liberia|
“Once they realize their necks are on the chopping block the whole village comes over," he said. “You might have 70-80 households that have crossed over en masse.”
While acknowledging his information came from refugees, Waines said it was clear from reports coming from western Côte d’Ivoire that there had been serious outbreaks of violence in the border areas. “There has been a lot death squad activity. We hear about it; different villages, different incidents. We have got a serious mobilization and no conventional military options, just a dirty, nasty `slaughter the civilians option’ which they are exercising."
Waines said there was strong evidence of large-scale recruitment of Liberian nationals, with ex-combatants from the former Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) joining pro-Ggagbo Ivoirian units. The national army officially backs Gbagbo. Waines said soldiers formerly with Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were also crossing into Côte d’Ivoire, along with other mercenaries.
Waines said the refugees arriving in Liberia’s northwestern county of Nimba were mainly from the Yacouba ethnic group, often seen as part of Alassane Ouattara’s support base, fleeing areas where Gbagbo supporters are in the majority. But he also noted a movement of Guéré, normally Gbabgo supporters, fleeing from areas where they are in the minority. Waines said there had been complaints from refugees of extortion and harassment from armed forces on both sides.
Seventeen border crossings
Veit Vogel, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Côte d’Ivoire, but currently in Liberia, said it was not easy to get a clear picture of the make-up of the refugees or the reasons behind their migration west, pointing out that there are 17 border crossings between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. “It is difficult to get confirmed information from the regions people are moving from. The people who are right now crossing the border are from both camps and they move for different reasons. Many move as a pre-emptive measure. Others have very concrete reports of violence and harassment."
The UNHCR has expressed strong concern at reports of FAFN troops barring access to the Côte d’Ivoire-Liberia border crossing at Gbeinta, thereby forcing refugees to go on difficult detour, another 80km south to reach another point of entry. The UNHCR has appealed for the protection of civilians and their right to “exile without obstruction”. The FAFN has also faced accusations of sending personnel into Liberian territory to try to persuade refugees to go back.
The former rebel Forces Nouvelles (FN) have denied blocking the border, highlighting instead significant population movements from government-held towns in the west, including Bloléquin, Toulepleu, Guiglo, Zouan-hounien and Bin-houé, into Forces Nouvelles-held territory.
Gbagbo’s Minister of Interior, Emile Guiriéoulou, has argued the reverse, pointing to a major flight of people out of Forces Nouvelles areas into government strongholds like Duékoué.
Reports from the west indicate that many of the refugees are leaving a stretch of territory south of the FN-held town of Danané in Côte d’Ivoire’s far-western 18 Montagnes region. This is an area with a long history of refugee movements, with thousands of Liberians moving to Danané during that country’s conflict. In common with neighbouring Moyen Cavally, it was also the scene of fierce fighting in 2002, notably after rebels, including Liberian elements, attacked government positions in the west in one of the bloodiest chapters of the Ivoirian civil war.
The establishment in 2003 of a ‘Zone de Confiance’, Zone of Confidence, running 600km east to west, patrolled by UN and French forces, was meant to provide a buffer between government and FAFN troops. This arrangement officially ended after the signing of the Ouagadougou Peace Accords in March 2007. But problems remained. Long-running land disputes have exacerbated inter-communal tensions, while a UN-backed disarmament campaign struggled to win the support of pro-Ggagbo militia fighters.
There were widespread fears that the west, often seen as the most volatile, contested region of Côte d’Ivoire, would erupt in violence before or during the elections. But visiting the region between the first and second rounds of voting, Vogel said it looked initially as if the concerns had been exaggerated. ”Tensions were high, suspicions were high, but there weren’t really many inter-communal clashes." He said that community leaders in some areas had gone out of their way to defuse potential problems and he hoped their initiatives would have a lasting impact.
As in other parts of Côte d’Ivoire, in the face of security concerns and access problems, international NGOs have had to scale down their activities in the west and warn of a lack of independent information while making do with unconfirmed reports and rumours.
A senior relief official with operations in FN territory said the long-standing partition of Côte D’Ivoire had been reinforced by the political breakdown in Abidjan. The country remains divided into areas administered by the state (still controlled by Gbagbo, despite Ouattara, the internationally recognized president having set up a government) and what was known in the past as the Centre-Nord-Ouest (CNO), where FN is in control.
The CNO covers a vast amount of territory, with very different landscapes and prospects. In the centre-north city of Bouaké, still very much the FN’s capital, a Ouattara supporter said markets were full of agricultural produce; the surplus was there because the same fruits and vegetables were not being sent south to Abidjan, part of a blockade campaign, but he acknowledged that the slow-down of trade had led to shortages and price increases in soap and other items.
Speaking from Korhogo farther north, a local NGO representative said there were serious worries about the long-term economic impact of the division, noting a major drop in vehicles going to Abidjan and much less produce coming north. There were also warnings of a return to a dependency culture, “with people always holding out their hand”, as long-term development projects were shelved “and we go back to square one”. International NGOs have also noted the switch from early recovery to humanitarian planning, waiting on evaluation studies and security briefs to see where they can operate safely.
“The situation has deteriorated to an extent where most NGOs and the UN have decided to evacuate international staff," Vogel pointed out. He noted that in the current climate, with anti-UN feelings running high, there were obvious dangers of ordinary NGOs being identified by hostile demonstrators as part of an enemy presence.
NRC curtails its activities
While NRC has nominally handed over activities to national staff, field missions are suspended for now and there is at best a minimal presence in field offices in areas like Bouaké and Duekoué. Transport strikes and other problems impede workers’ access to the office in Abidjan.
Vogel also noted the cumulative problems for staff of rising food prices, political uncertainty and outbreaks of violence in their home areas. “There is this whole insecurity that nobody knows where the country is heading to that causes a lot of stress”.
Vogel said the de facto suspension of NRC’s activities was extremely frustrating. “This is not like a video where you can switch on and switch off and keep watching it." He said educational programmes were now threatened by the closure of the schools targeted by NRC, while the organization’s work on inter-community land issues required a major investment of time. “Mediation around land issues was the focus of this year and next year. You are not going to resolve this kind of problem overnight. There is a lot of talking, a lot of building trust. But if it continues like this, all that we have done previously could be lost."