Liberian refugees rescued from a floundering ferry in the waters off Ivory Coast are being flown to Monrovia. For some, this will be the first time they have seen their homeland in more than a decade.
The United Nations refugee agency is repatriating 360 Liberians who attempted to return from camps in Nigeria and Ghana on their own. After spending nearly three weeks on the high seas in a decrepit ferry with little food or water, they had to be towed into a port in Ivory Coast. The United Nations has chartered a plane to fly them home to Liberia.
Applause erupted and people began to sing as the plane touched down at Robertsfield Airport in Liberia.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Liberia. It is 11 o'clock AM local time and you just landed at Robertsfield. Please keep your seatbelts fastened...," said a flight attendant.
Then they all joined in singing the national anthem.
Many of the returnees, like Alfred White, have fled from a civil war that broke out in the early 1990s and have not seen their homeland since then. "Coming back to Liberia, I'm telling you, as I'm standing now speaking, I'm shivering, shaking because we had a terrible, terrible nightmare," he recalled.
The U.N. refugee agency spokesman in Monrovia, Moses Okello, says the repatriation of some 350,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout west Africa will not start until October.
"However, there are people at this time reading of events going on in Liberia as being positive and being persuaded to come back on their own and that's partly what we are experiencing now," he said. "However, we would like to appeal to all Liberian refugees to wait for organized repatriation because of the kinds of dangers they are experiencing trying to come home on their own."
He said that much of the delay in repatriating refugees is due to lack of funding. He added the refugee agency has received only about one-third of the money it needs to carry out its mission.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees residing in camps must be given basic liberties, including the right to work and own property and freedom to travel.
However, Jasper Hinneh, who left Liberia in 1990 and, along with tens of thousands of others, spent years in a refugee camp in Ghana, said that he had no rights and sometimes even nothing to eat.
"We've been in Ghana the whole time trying to make our way, trying to make our way," he said. "At the camp we are not fed. They haven't given us any benefit since I've been in Ghana so I decided I couldn't go to Liberia at first, because of insecurity yes, but now I've decided I would be forced to go to Liberia."
Mr. White agrees. He said that while his return journey may have been a nightmare, the life in the refugee camp was worse.
"Over there we can't work because we are refugees so we can't work in that country," he said. "So sometimes we have friends who were helping us make it to survive. And there are a lot of Liberians out there that are suffering, that want to come home. There are people who want to come home right now. There is no food, nothing in refugee camps. Everybody is doing everything for themselves now."
Mr. Hinneh, who left Liberia when he was just 14 years old, is upbeat. He says now that he is back, he wants to open a small business showing gospel music videos in Monrovia.