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Liberian Refugees Refuse to Leave Camps

In West Africa, even though peace and democracy have returned to war-torn Liberia, tens of thousands of Liberian refugees remain in camps in neighboring countries, like Ghana. VOA's Nico Colombant has this report from the Buduburam camp for refugees outside the Ghanian capital Accra

Liberian children sing as they walk home from school, outside the camp. There are more than 50,000 people crammed along these dirt streets. The children seem to be the only ones happy to here. They are practicing marching for the independence day of Ghana, their adopted country.

For most adults, like Martha, who fled Liberia in 1990, it is anything but a joyous occasion. Martha is doing dishes for other refugees at the camp, trying to get a few Ghanaian cedis, the local currency.

"I have to go and work for people, wash dishes. People give it to me. Certain people help me for clothes, the things that I wear. I do not even have a bra on. Nothing," she said. "It is not easy. I am sick. I do not have anything. I go to the clinic. I have money to go there."

Two of her children died here, of malaria.

But she has no plans to go back to Liberia, where she says she thinks it would be worse.

"I do not have anyone in Liberia," she said. "I do not know where anybody is, my parents, my family to go back to Liberia now, to go and start a new life, that I do not know. So, if the U.N can settle me there is nowhere for me to go now. But I do not have any means to go back to Liberia. OK, when U.N. can settle me to a different country, fine, we appreciate it, I would like that."

U.N. agencies are offering free flights back to Liberia, and will soon offer free ship rides, but there are few takers. Most say there will not be enough help or opportunity in Liberia for them to rebuild their lives.

Refugees instead cling to hopes they will be enrolled in dwindling programs to resettle refugees in Scandinavia or North America.

Sam, a street sweeper, has similar dreams, but a dismal reality. Today, he is sweeping in front of a little shop that makes bedcovers with a patchwork of recycled pieces of cloth.

"Sometimes, I can come around if they need me, maybe to sweep the area, I will not even ask anybody, but I will take the broom and begin to sweep voluntarily, you know," he said. "Sometime maybe [they] will feel for me, and just say ok hold this thousand and maybe I can use that to buy something for myself."

One thousand cedis is about ten cents. His eyes are yellow, usually a sign of typhoid fever.

He says incentives offered by aid agencies to go back to Liberia are too few.

"I learn that when refugees get back to Liberia, what they do is that they give them five dollars to start. And, now, five dollars more or less is nothing. This is why I find that even most of the refugees they are here and they are not even wishing to go back," he said. "You lost everything, the rebels have destroyed everything you have in your home, where are you going to stay? Your mother, and your father died, all your brothers and sisters they died. You do not have anybody back home to do anything for you. Where are you going to live? Where are you going to stay? And besides, that, how are you going to manage, even get food to eat?"

Sam gave up his daughter to a Ghanaian couple who thought she was cute. He says they give him money for the adoption, but he hopes to get her back.

He thought of forging himself a Ghanaian I.D. card and trying his luck in nearby Accra, but the stories he read in newspapers discouraged him.

"There are some reported cases of people that I know sometimes, I read through the newspaper, I see some cases about refugees who have been sentenced to jail because they tried to leave and there is no means," Sam said. "So some of them they cannot bear it and they will go and steal some people's things and they were sentenced to five-ten year imprisonment. And, they will just be there, [with] no one to take them off."

The informal mayor of the camp, a 15-year refugee himself, Varney Sambola, tries to help others stay out of trouble, find work, food and education. He walks around the camp greeting people.

Sambola says it is hard to be stuck in the mindset of a refugee.

"No one wants to become a professional refugee anyway. And, being a refugee is just by accident. Being a refugee is just that you become a victim of circumstances that you did not create for yourself. But I see that being a refugee, also you should have courage and strength. You must be adaptable. So I see some adaptability in the Liberians. There are some reluctant ones. There are some others who do not have the means, but being a refugee is a terrible situation," said Sambola. "But we have learned a whole lot from other countries. So many Liberians are in the university of life. They are seeing the way the Ghanaians love Ghana, they are seeing the way the Ghanaians love Ghanaians, so being a refugee is also an opportunity for one to be able to learn to know about danger, to be able to learn what unity can bring forth, to be able to learn what unity can do."

Small children, who were born here, dance to music playing outside an electronics shop. Unlike Liberia, there is electricity here.

But those who have never been to Liberia seem to be the only ones who want to go to, like six year-old Tokey.

"I want to say I love Liberia, because I love the country and because I want to go to Liberia and to my grandma, to my grandma, because I want to be loved," Tokey said.

Many other children at the camp say the same thing, that they want to be back in Liberia to be with their grandparents.