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UN to Begin Resettling Sierra Leone Refugees

The United Nations Refugee Agency says it will start returning thousands of Sierra Leoneans to their original homes in the Kambia district of northwest Sierra Leone early next month.

This will mark the first time that returnees are actually assisted by the U.N. refugee agency to return to their homes since the beginning of the civil conflict in Sierra Leone more than a decade ago.

The UNHCR says it now is safe to return some 7,500 Sierra Leoneans, who formerly were refugees in Guinea. They will be going to Kambia, which had been held by rebel forces

This group of people actually returned from Forecariah, Guinea, to Sierra Leone at the end of last year. But they were unable to go back to their homes in Kambia district because the area was not secure.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the returnees have been living in temporary settlements in the Lungi area, north of Freetown. "The reason we can now take these people back is because the government has declared it safe. This follows the completion of the demobilization process, the deployment of the Sierra Leone army, the presence of military observers in the area as well as the restoration of state civil structures and authorities in the district. So this is good news," concluded Mr. Redmond.

Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR will continue to assist returnees in their home areas through a variety of community-based projects. These include the rehabilitation of health clinics, schools, water and sanitation. He says the Sierra Leoneans also will receive tools and seeds and benefit from micro-credit schemes.

Within a few months, Mr. Redmond says the agency hopes to begin community-based projects in Sierra Leone's eastern districts. These areas are among the most devastated by the civil war. Mr. Redmond says particular attention will be turned to the Kono district in Eastern Sierra Leone, which borders Guinea in the troubled Parrot's Beak region.

"That is where the borders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea meet and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting and some of the worst atrocities of the last decade," explained Mr. Redmond. "We are hoping that gradually over the next few months that the foundation can be laid for returns to that region as well. Already people have gone back to that area on their own."

In the past few weeks, there have been several fact-finding missions in the war-ravaged Kono district. U.N. workers report that the healthcare, education, physical and social infrastructure of the district have been devastated.

Despite the destruction, the U.N. Refugee Agency reports tens of thousands of returnees have gone back to Kono over the past year. Mr. Redmond says the returnees cite insecurity in Guinea and improved prospects for peace in Sierra Leone as their main reasons for returning home.