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Thousand of Liberian Refugees Return Home - 2004-03-18

Thousands of Liberian refugees are going back to their country where a large United Nations peacekeeping mission has been deployed. But many homes and entire villages have been destroyed, so the returnees are flocking to camps in or near the capital, adding to aid agencies' problems.

At the Perry camp on the outskirts of Monrovia, recently returned refugees, are clearing land to make room for new shelters.

The population at the camp, built for 7,000 people, has swelled to 10,000. With overcrowding, tension in the camp is rising.

Long-time resident of Perry camp, Foday Dukuly, never left Liberia, so he is classified as an internally displaced person or IDP. He says the returnees are putting a squeeze on aid resources.

"We would like to request more assistance for the returnees, the IDPs, and the rest of the Liberians," he said. "The U.N. were not actually prepared for the returnees. They are doing their own repatriation because of the situation they have encountered in Sierra Leone. This is why they have come to actually seek refuge on this side. But the U.N. is not actually prepared to receive them."

Water is being distributed, but not all returnees are getting food every day.

One woman, Hadja Sherif, says she hasn't had food for her family in three days.

Inside a small first-aid tent, dozens of returnees are getting vaccination shots. Many children look sickly.

An aid worker who has been helping Liberians since fighting started 14 years ago, Mariama Brown, is trying to cope with the strain. "I think the process is kind of hectic. I think you see the crowd. People are standing in line for treatment, and people are there working to try to rush up, because more and more people continue to come," he said.

One of them, Joseph Kanneh, says he wanted to return to his home in Grand Cape Mount County, but says there was nothing left there and too much insecurity, with former fighters still roaming the area. "My village is burned down, the whole town, nothing there," he said. "I don't have anything. If I could have gone there, but these guys are not disarmed yet, I'm not part of them, so I was so afraid I came directly here in the camp."

His girlfriend, who is pregnant, was not able to make the trip, but says he hopes she will be able to rejoin him once she has the baby.

The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia, Jacques Klein, sees the return of the refugees as a good sign. "As soon as I heard that people were voluntarily coming back from Sierra Leone to Liberia I said now we're beginning to win because they're not stupid; they wouldn't be coming back if they thought they would be putting themselves in harm's way," he said. "Yes their villages are burned, there's nothing I can do about that. They were burned during the war, it's going to be a process of rebuilding, and you'll find that the U.N. agencies, UNHCR and others are very much involved in this."

Most returnees flock to Monrovia and its suburbs because that's where U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers are stationed. More than half of Liberia's three million people are believed to be living there.

Besides the official U.N. camps where an estimated 250,000 people are getting help, more and more people are squatting inside the skeletons of hotels and public buildings destroyed during the war.

One aid worker, Doris Knoechel, from the group World Vision, says this makes for an unhealthy environment. "I would really advise that we look at that carefully and that we counter-balance that immediately with the actions to go out and give services in the countryside and decrease the services that we are giving here, particularly inside the camps, so that we create a pull-factor for the population to go back to the countryside where they can make at least their basic living," he said.

Ms. Knoechel is urging the U.N. mission to speed up disarmament, which so far has taken place just in parts of Monrovia, so that people can feel it's safe enough to return to their homes.