The United Nations and Liberia's refugee agency are launching a new repatriation program, aimed at bringing Liberians home in time to register to vote in elections later this year. But many refugees are wary of returning home, fearing economic hardship and political instability. Joe Bavier recently accompanied a group of returning refugees to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and files this report for VOA.
It is just after dawn at a United Nations transit center for Liberian refugees near the town of Tabou in western Ivory Coast, and several-hundred residents of the camp stand around the back of four large trucks. Some wait for their names to be called before climbing into the backs of the vehicles. Others are just there to watch.
These trucks will make up the first large convoy from Ivory Coast into Liberia, aimed at repatriating Liberians displaced during the country's recently ended 14-year civil war.
The head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees field office in Tabou, Mahamadou Taher Toure, says he expects this convoy to be just the beginning. But, he says, many refugees still need to be convinced that their country is safe and stable.
"According to the last census we made in March in the Tabou area, seven-thousand [refugees] give the intention, say that they want to go back in 2005. I want to [specify], it is just the intention," he said.
Beginning May 24, the UNHCR plans to organize two convoys per week from Tabou, where an estimated 45,000 Liberian refugees still live. The organization aims to bring about 5,000 Liberians home in the coming months, in hopes that many will return in time to register to vote in elections scheduled for October.
But of the more than 200 refugees signed up for the first convoy, only 103 actually leave.
On the first morning of the voyage, the convoy arrives at the Cavally River in the Ivorian town of Prollo. As the returnees wait to board a ferry, Josh Wessing, 34, holds the hands of his two young sons and gazes across the river at Liberia. His pregnant wife has been traveling in an ambulance behind the convoy.
He says he feels bad about coming home. He lost five members of his family during the war. But he is returning, he says, because Liberia is his home.
After a short ferry ride across the river, the Tabou returnees arrive in Liberia, a country still without electricity, running water or a reliable telephone service.
During the 16-hour second leg of the trip, the trucks repeatedly get bogged down in mud. Liberia's all but non-existent highway system means that the 800-kilometer journey to Monrovia takes four full days. The stop allows the returnees a chance to get out and relax. Children play in a nearby stream.
In every town along the convoy's route, some burned-out buildings remain abandoned.
Many of those who stayed behind at the transit center in Tabou said they were not ready to come home yet. They said they were still afraid war could return and will wait to see what changes the elections bring.
The night before the convoy arrives in Monrovia, one of the half dozen pregnant women on the convoy gives birth. The southeast regional coordinator for Liberia's Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, G. Wamleh Elliott, sees that as a positive sign. He says Liberia needs all of its citizens to help the country rebuild.
"Maybe it was the child that really pushed the parent to come home. [She] said, 'Look, I do not want to be born in a foreign land. I want to touch my soil.' We call her little Liberia. Little Liberia. A child that would not be born in a foreign land," Mr. Elliot explained.
But hope is hard to sustain. In Monrovia, the young mother arrives to find squatters in her old house. They say her father has been killed. She says she thinks her aunt is still alive and living in the capital, but for now, both mother and child are homeless.