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Liberians Escape to Neighboring Countries - 2002-06-05

Refugee camps in countries bordering Liberia keep filling as hundreds of people continue to leave the country to escape hostilities between soldiers and what the Liberian government says are rebel fighters. As the population of the camps grows, refugees are complaining that conditions are becoming worse. The complaints have prompted U.N. relief agencies to dispatch teams this week to investigate.

Danane, about 25 kilometers from the Liberian border, is the first stop for Liberian refugees like 18-year-old John Morris. Mr. Morris, a college student, says he fled after soldiers looted his school during a reported rebel attack. "We hear rumors of war every day," he said. "I saw people running helter-skelter. I myself was very confused. All this built tension in me. I decided to come to this side. The things that we have been hearing, if you are in Liberia and you're a man's age, you are forced [to fight]. If they [the soldiers] see you pass on the street, they force you onto trucks. Even if you don't know anything about [using] a gun, they try to put you on a truck and carry you [away]."

Mr. Morris spoke to VOA moments after crossing the border at the checkpoint in Loguatuo, a shantytown on the Liberian side. The group was composed mainly of women with children and young men like himself. He says there was no transport available for much of the way from the capital, Monrovia. So, he said, he and the others had to walk. He says the fatigue was not nearly as bad as the harassment and abuse he was subjected to on the road. "The trip from Monrovia, it was bad because of the militias on the road," he said. "The child soldiers, they gave us a hard time to cross the checkpoints. They asked me to show my identity, and I told them I left my identity. They said that I should sit down. I waited more than two hours for the commander to come. I explained the problem to the commander. He asked me to pay some money, and that's how come I was released from the checkpoint there. They used some harsh words against me."

Over the past few months, the government of President Charles Taylor has said the rebels have stepped up attacks on towns and villages as close as 25 kilometers from Monrovia.

Mr. Taylor declared a state of emergency in February, giving security forces wider powers to arrest and detain people suspected of aiding the rebels. That, some say, has allowed security forces to go on rampages, breaking into the homes of those suspected of opposing the Taylor government.

Western journalists and other observers returning from places where the fighting has reportedly occurred have said they saw no evidence of fierce gun battles as the government has reported. There is however, ample evidence of looting done, some witnesses say, by government soldiers. Residents have also reported seeing soldiers firing repeatedly into the air, causing panic among the population.

While there is debate about whether the extent of the rebel war in Liberia is as great as the government reports it, what is certain is that the unrest is causing anxiety and misery for thousands of people here in the refugee centers.

People who had begun to lead stable lives following Liberia's seven-year civil war in the 1990s are again displaced, and fearful. Angeline Menyon, a 35-year-old nurse, fled the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in recent days with her four children. "What I went through during the first war, I almost died from hunger," she said. "And people were taking people from their houses, going from house to house, killing them. No, I will not stay for a second time. It's a setback for me, for my family, for everybody. For Liberia, it's a setback. We don't know how many years we are going in for it again. And now, I'm in Ivory Coast. As a professional person, there's no way for me to work. It's discouraging. "

Tired and hungry after several days on the road, Mrs. Menyon arrived in Danane with little or no money. She says conditions at the camp are not good. "They gave out blankets, they gave out mats, they gave out pots," she said. "Never [since] saw any United Nations person or any UNHCR to counsel us on what next to do. You see my children's skin? So many mosquitos. The whole day, when you speak to somebody, they aren't able to answer you. They won't answer you. We're staying here, hungry the whole day. We're even selling some of the things that they gave us to buy food for us to eat."

Some refugees flock to an Internet cafe in Danane, hoping to establish contact with family or friends who are abroad, in many cases in the United States. She has no money, and no relatives abroad who can help her. But in some ways, Angeline Menyon is fortunate. She at least escaped with her children by her side. A sign posted on the Ivory Coast side of the border, opposite the Liberian checkpoint, instructs parents what steps to take if they lost their children during the escape.

Salome Gongloe works with a local refugee advocacy group, the Liberian Refugee Community Youth Wing, to reunite families. She searches camps and registration centers along the border, hoping to find lost children. "Most of the children, when they come, they tell us 'We were home, and after we heard heavy firing, we all ran out. The group was large, and our parents got lost from us.' Some people jump into the bushes, you know, fighting for survival," she said. "Those are some of the ways that they get separated. There was a case of a woman went to fetch water at the back of her house. When the incident took place, she was not able to come back to get her baby. I think the child is one year, four months old. Another person took the child and brought the child."

After refugees are registered at the transit camp in Danane, those who have no money or relatives to help them are sent to a large camp known as Nicla, more than 100 kilometers away in the Ivory Coast town of Guiglo. Some refugees say they fear going there because they have heard that conditions at the camp are bad.