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Refugees Seeking Safety In Ivory Coast, Instead Fought In War - 2003-06-16

Thousands of Liberian refugees fleeing war in their country continue to flood into Ivory Coast, as they have for the past 15 years. Ivory Coast used to be a welcoming haven of stability. But since it experienced its own civil war last year, the hospitality for refugees has deteriorated. One of the reasons is that, instead of seeking safety, some of the refugees became fighters in the Ivorian war.

United Nations aid workers say about 25-thousand Liberians have fled eastern Liberia since mid-May, seeking refuge in Ivory Coast.

To cross the border, the refugees paddle across the Cavally River that separates the two West African countries.

The population flight follows an offensive by a new Liberian rebel group, known as MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia). The group allegedly is backed by the Ivorian government, but there has been no comment by Ivorian officials. Ivory Coast accuses Liberia of backing rebels who continued fighting in western Ivory Coast up until last month.

The head of U-N refugee operations in Ivory Coast, Panos Moumtzis, says Ivorian communities no longer welcome Liberian refugees as they used to.

He says, "This hospitality, unfortunately, it came to an end with the start of the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire. And, it was really sad to see that the traditional hospitality -- that existed among tribes that were split by an international border, though in reality they existed on both sides of the border -- this hospitality has basically come to an end, or it's going through a very difficult time."

Liberian mercenaries were recruited by both sides in the Ivorian civil war. This lead to mistrust within local communities about whether refugees were victims, or whether they were aggressors.

In some cases, Mr. Moumtzis says, the Ivorian army forcibly recruited fighters among refugees, including children. Guns were distributed in refugee camps.

The recruited mercenaries, some of them as young as eight, were not paid for their warrior services, so often, they would loot, kill and rape on their way back to the refugee camps.

Now that a peace agreement is taking hold in Ivory Coast, Mr. Moumtzis is making it a priority for all Liberian refugees to be disarmed.

He says, "We hope that in this post-conflict period, where we're now with this peace agreement and with ongoing discussions, that there will be a demobilization and disarmament and reintegration of all fighters, including any former refugees who might have taken up arms, so that this anomaly will come to an end, as soon as possible."

At the Nicla refugee camp in western Ivory Coast, Liberian refugee children say they want to go. They say they get no protection.

When the war broke out in western Ivory Coast, aid workers fled the area, leaving refugees in the cross-fire between rebels and Ivorian government forces.

The Nicla area is now under Ivorian government control, but refugees complain that, when the aid workers are away, Ivorian soldiers abuse them.

But when aid workers and visiting journalists are there, the refugees taunt the soldiers, yelling at them in English, asking them why they are so rude.

Moses Kar Kar, has been a refugee for more than 10 years at the camp, but he says the situation has become unbearable.

He says, "The Ivorians around the area, they are threatening us, because they say that the Liberians are rebels coming here to kill people. So we Liberians, if anything happens, we will be killed. So, we don't go anywhere. We are stuck just in a little place. We have serious problems with the people."

Nineteen-year-old Anthony Koffeh, who arrived at the Nicla camp in May, says he dreams of being able to return to school.

"I'm not happy," he says, "to be here, because there is no good education here. I am a high school student, and I want to improve my education. I want the U-N to take me to my kind of school, or any vocational school, because, without education, you just end up being someone who will run around on the streets."

Before the civil war, the Ivory Coast government preferred not to have refugee camps, choosing instead to welcome refugees in villages along the border.

U-N workers say the refugees and the government benefited, because money spent on refugees could also be spent on helping border villages build schools, hospitals and roads. Now, U-N workers say, the refugee influx has provoked spiraling violence along the border that is costly to all sides.