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UNHCR to Bring Back Sierra Leone Refugees from Liberia - 2002-01-21

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) will start to bring over 2,000 Sierra Leonean refugees back home from camps in Liberia next month. The return will be the agency's first from Liberia since war broke out in Sierra Leone 10 years ago.

UNHCR says it is not promoting a massive refugee return to eastern Sierra Leone because the area could not yet handle a large number of people.

But UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the organization will aid those who want to go back home to vote in the coming elections in May. "Most of the refugees in Liberia come from the Kono and Kailahun areas in eastern Sierra Leone," he said. "That area, of course, has been devastated by fighting over the past several years between the RUF rebels and the government troops who are fighting for control over the diamond-rich areas."

Mr. Redmond says these areas have now been disarmed and government will soon be restored. This development, he explains, opens the opportunity for the UNHCR to help returnees reintegrate and rebuild their country.

Government officials, rebel leaders of the Revolutionary United Front and international dignitaries attended a ceremony last Friday to mark the end of Sierra Leone's brutal 10 year civil war. The fighting killed more than 200,000 people and left thousands more mutilated.

Mr. Redmond says the refugee agency is providing those who return with information to make them aware of some of the challenges they may face. "We want these people going back to be very aware of how difficult it is going to be when they get back and there is not going to be a huge support structure for them at this time," said Ron Redmond.

The UNHCR provides aid to about 38,000 Sierra Leone refugees in several camps around the Liberian capital, Monrovia.