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More Liberian Refugees Return Ahead of Elections


According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there has been a recent surge in the number of Liberian refugees returning home from Ivory Coast as conditions within Liberia have improved and the country officially kicked off its political campaign this month.

One group of more than 250 Liberian refugees from ages six months to 80 years old trudge through the mud during the rainy season in northern Ivory Coast to board buses to take them home to Liberia.

Many of them are smiling, but some anxious about what lies ahead in their years of absence following the 14 years of civil war in their country.

On a blanket in the corner are the belongings of all 264 refugees. A quick count shows a small wooden table and 10 plastic sacks are all they have. One 75-year-old man carries nothing but a makeshift broom as he boards a bus.

Christiane Mah, 23, has been a refugee in the Ivory Coast since she was eight years old and her family ran away during the civil war.

Today, she is happy to return to a country she barely remembers because that is where she will reunite with her husband and oldest son. The only belonging she has is strapped to her back: Her one-year-old son.

"Now, as for me, I don't have anything. Only the U.N. I am depending on who have helped me to carry me back and given me things," she said.

When Liberia's 14-year civil war finally came to an end in August 2003, there were an estimated 350,000 Liberian refugees scattered across West Africa. Many fled to neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast. Gradually, refugees and the displaced people began returning to their places of origin - mainly in the southeast, central, and northern regions of Liberia. Many received assistance from U.N. agencies, while others began returning on their own.

Today, the journey back home continues for Liberians as they cross the border from Ivory Coast to Toetown, Liberia, in four large buses escorted by a United Nations convoy.

One by one they step off the bus and head for the welcome center where they will be registered, given medical attention if necessary, a warm meal and will stay overnight.

The following day they will be given a ration of food that will last them until the next harvest, about four months. They also will be given such necessities as blankets, sleeping mats, potable water, hurricane lamps, clothing, and cooking utensils. They will be given cash for their final journey into their villages: $5 per person.

One young man, William Gilah, is so overwhelmed by the welcome, he decides to make a speech in front of his fellow refugees. "I am happy at this time to steal a moment with my fellow Liberians," he said. "I say thanks to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for the Ivory Coast who led us here safely. I a very thankful to God that we came just very freely. Thank you very much to the U.N., to the Ivory Coast that you have helped us for the past 15 years and we are back . Thank you and thank God."

The UNHCR has said its has been working with communities to rehabilitate and construct schools, water and sanitation systems, shelter, bridges and roads, which were all severely damaged during the 14-years of civil war.

That is good news for Albertha Neewill, 38, who is coming back with her 80-year-old mother and four small children in tow. She talks about her plans when she returns home. "Because I was a student before and, I want go back to school so I can do something good. I stopped in the 12th grade. I want to be a nurse," she said.

But not all Liberian refugees were happy to head back home. A few hours south by car in the Western town of Guiglo is Nicla Peace Camp, a sprawling village of mud and thatch, in an ever-extending forest clearing. Refugees there said they were not ready to return to Liberia, despite the upcoming elections.

This month, campaigning kicked off for Liberia's first election since the end of its bitter civil war, with 22 people from former footballer George Weah to ex-rebels to veteran opposition leaders vying to be chosen president in the October 11 poll.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in October are designed to seal the West African country's transition back to democracy. But, Taylor Npour, 23, as well as others, does not believe the October elections promise stability in Liberia.

"No, no, no. I do not even feel secure," said Mr. Npour. "As are we listening to some media there is a conflict going on. Election tension in Liberia. We are here. We are listening to radios. Election tensions. So many candidates within the country, you see.

"And they are fighting among themselves. You see. So the country is not safe," she added. "So we want to go to a free land so that we get a better education but if we are to come back to Liberia tomorrow, we will be able to come with have achievement to develop our nation."

Fatoumata Kaba, UNHCR spokeswoman for West Africa, says despite resistance by some to going back to Liberia, more than 200,000 refugees have returned so far.

"In Cote D'Ivoire, more and more refugees living in the villages are opting for repatriation," said Ms. Kaba. "They want to go home now, now that the security situation has improved in Liberia."

Ms. Kaba says that those who opt not to go back to Liberia may be hoping for a group resettlement in a country such as the United States. While that is an option, she says, it will depend on the governments of individual countries to make that decision. Her biggest worry is that when the regional resettlement program in West Africa ends in 2007, the refugees who opted to stay may have limited their chances for a more stable life.

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