LIBERIA I feel safe

Conflict in Côte d'Ivoire has caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Liberia

By Beatrice Lebouc-Adjele and Hubert Charles, CARE International

Polou is a 26 year old Ivorian, and a single mother of six young children.  She fled Ivory Coast in May and sought refuge in Grand Gedeh, south eastern Liberia when rebels attacked Teon, the village where she lived with her six children and two sisters. “Teon was attacked by armed militia late in the evening. There was gun fire all over the village. Very loud continuous firing that we had never witnessed before,” recounts Polou.  “We were very frightened. There were three women in my house, my two sisters and myself, and the six children. We had no man to protect us. We left the house and started running not knowing where we were going. We just joined the other women” Polou and her family spent three nights in the bush without food and water, sleeping on the ground, using her hand as pillow.

On the third day they were hungry and thirsty and needed to change their clothes. They decided to return home in search of food and water, hoping that the militia would have left their village.  However, half way through they were advised not to return home but to proceed to the Liberian border as the militia were still active in the village, looting and killing innocent civilians.  Polou was told that everyone in her village had either fled or has been killed.

She then decided to join the other women and head for the border with Liberia. “My grandmother lives in Bargblor, in Grand Gedeh County in Liberia. So I decided to walk to Bargblor with the hope that I can find her”, she said. Unfortunately when Polou arrived, her grandmother has passed away.  “But I met her sister who hosted us” she said. “I am happy now. But so many people, especially children, died on the way. They had no food to eat and were not able to walk continuously for three days to reach Liberia. I did not lose any child but three of them are very sick and are still in the hospital”.

Communities open their homes to refugees

The current political crisis in Cote d’Ivoire has led over 150,000 Ivorians to flee to Liberia. About half the refugees crossed the border into Liberia between mid-February and mid-March due an escalation in the fighting in towns closer to the border with Liberia. To date, Liberia has seen the largest number of Ivorians arriving onto its territory with almost 100 new arrivals per day.

Refugees are arriving in Liberia nine months after the conflict started without any asset, traumatized, exhausted, hungry and often sick. The host communities in the villages south east of Liberia have been generous to the refugees. Offering accommodation and food, making them welcome, partly as a gesture of reciprocation for the hospitality extended to Liberians during its civil war.  Local residents have opened their houses, sheltering families at considerable sacrifice. Polou appreciates this sacrifice and thanks her hosts. “I will stay here, in the host community as people are generous and great with me and I feel safe” said Polou when asked whether she plan to return to Ivory Coast soon.

The majority of the refugees continue to stay with host families in the border villages and this becomes a concern in the management of the situation by giving more support to refugees. The host villages have been overwhelmed and their coping mechanisms stretched, as they have provided initial support: food, safe water and shelter to the refugees.  75% of the members of the host community lived on less than US$1 a day before the influx. Hosting the refugees have depleted their asset and these should be replenished to enable them cope with the harsh environment in which they live.

"CARE makes us feel like human beings again"

In May/June, CARE distributed non-food items to refugees living in the community (such as jerry cans, bath and laundry soap, mosquito nets, sanitary towels, sleeping mats). Polou has been registered by the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) and thus benefited from CARE’s relief distribution.  She is so happy with the items and especially the wrappers. According to her, “they are nice and good quality. I arrived here without any additional clothes except what I wore when I left home that evening. Now I have the wrappers, I can store water in the jerry cans, cook food for my children in proper pots, and eat on my own plates. Thanks for CARE for making us feel like human beings again”.

CARE Liberia is well prepared to support the refugees and the host communities to cope with the shock of the situation. CARE, with support from DfID is currently planning to distribute emergency supplies and  high energy biscuits, providing access to water and sanitation and promoting hygiene as well as addressing gender based violence.  CARE is the only NGO intervening in Bargblor and refugees rely on us.

About CARE: Founded in 1945, CARE is one of the world's largest humanitarian aid agencies. Working side by side with poor communities in 70 countries, CARE helps empower people to address the greatest threats to their survival. Women are at the heart of CARE's efforts to improve health, education and economic development because experience shows that a woman's achievements yield dramatic benefits for her entire family. CARE is also committed to providing lifesaving assistance during times of crisis, and helping rebuild safer, stronger communities afterward. CARE Liberia’s programming is mainly focused on food and income security, with complementary projects in women’s economic empowerment, access to water, sanitation and sustainable agriculture. CARE has a total staff of 40 in Monrovia and Gbarnga, in Bong County.