LIBERIA Voices from the ground

Stories told by refugees from Cote d’Ivoire in Liberia

by Anders Nordstoga, Emergency Media Officer for CARE Liberia

These following stories were collected in the Liberian villages of Gblarlay and Theahplay in Nimba County a few kilometres from the border to Cote d’Ivoire on the 24th and 25th of February 2011. Over the preceding days there had been an escalation of armed fighting in the rural west of Cote d’Ivoire. Our visit coincided with an increased influx of refugees from that area.

In Gblarlay, the government’s local refugee coordinator, Mully Sándi, estimated that several hundred refugees had passed through the village on February 24th. “It’s overcrowded, overcrowded. People are coming all the time. Look over there” he exclaimed with resignation, pointing to ten persons or so coming into the village carrying heavy loads on their heads.

The Ivorian population in the area bordering to the Liberian County of Nimba is a mix of mainly two different tribes. All refugees we met were from the yacoba tribe. They came to yacoba villages, where people speak the same language. We witnessed host communities generously trying to accommodate them, but there was too little of everything, including clean water, food and shelter.

The fighting that has broken out since the Nov. 28 election has been between supporters of Alassane Quattara, the internationally recognised winner of the election, and the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to hand over the presidency to Quattara. Stories told by refugees in Nimba were of threats and intimidation by militants from another tribe.

The Liberian villages in Nimba were vulnerable communities prior to the refugee crisis. They will continue to need assistance after the refugees leave. CARE wants to participate in the emergency assistance to refugees while simultaneously planning for long term development work with the host communities.

Knowing when to run

When the rebels began singing, Nadége and her family ran into the bush, never expecting to see any of their things again.

Nadége Piasseu and her family arrived early in the morning in Gblarlay on February 24th. She, her husband and three young children had left their home in a hurry the evening before. Pro Gbagbo rebels had recently made camp not far from their home town of Kolleu. As the sun was setting they heard the sound of ugly things about to happen.

“The rebels were singing and shooting in the air. We just ran away and slept in the bush. We did not bring anything from our house. What we will do now, I do not know. I do not know where we are going to sleep tonight” she says, sitting with her baby by a tree waiting for someone to come with answers.

I ask whether they have had anything to eat since they arrived. “All the food we have is what we had in our stomachs when we ran from our home” Nadége answers.

On that food they walked at least 25 kilometres, according to Nadége’s estimation. She hopes they will soon walk the same way back, but not before things quite down. She does not expect anything to be left in their house when one day it is safe to go home. “I am sure the soldiers have gone through our house and taken everything. We will not see any of it again. We have lost everything.”

The last to leave

The soldiers drove through the village on trucks saying they would come back and kill them all. Nobody waited to see if they meant it.

Guen Kampeussen Nina, her husband and three children of ages 13, 8 and 5 left their home in Dohoupleu at midnight. After five hours of walking, they arrived in Glabarlay in the morning on February 24th with a group of 32 from the same village. They were the last to leave.

“Our village is next to a village of another tribe. Yesterday a militia drove through our village on trucks shouting that they would liberate the village Danané further north. They wore military trousers and white t-shirts. They had guns and machetes. They demanded food and that our men and boys came along to fight, but we refused. Thank god they did not kill anyone, but they were violent and said that if they could not liberate Danané, they would come back and kill everyone. All of us who were left in the village then decided to leave” Guen tells us.

The family managed to take with them a few belongings, including a small bag of rice and a mattress. Her husband carried it on his head. They had little idea of what would meet them on the other side of the border.

“All we hoped to have in Liberia was peace. We had no other expectations. When there is peace in Cote d’Ivoire we will go back. Many of us go to school and have jobs. But the situation is very uncertain, very confusing. We do not know anything. We can only wait” she says.

While we talk, Guen and her family are sitting in the shadow of a tree waiting to be told where they can spend the night. Most of the newly arrived refugees are housed in the village school building, so they believe that is were they will sleep. More uncertain is when they will eat again.

“We ate all our food when we arrived this morning. Now we have only 50 Liberian dollars (less than one US dollar) and three children to feed, so it is difficult. We had no time to prepare better for our journey. We had no time to prepare more food.”

The influx of Ivorian refugees into Nimba County is rapidly depleting scarce resources of host communities. Some of the heaviest fighting during the Liberian civil war that ended in 2003 took place in Nimba. Villages have barely recovered. Sharing supplies of food, water, shelter and sanitary installations with thousands of refugees means they will have less to support themselves in the coming months. Wells are drying out, seeds are used for food and the scarcity of latrines increases health hazards.

Many Ivorian refugees will remain for longer periods. They are offered local land to farm, but lack seeds and tools. CARE Liberia is well prepared to support the refugees and the host communities to cope with the shock of the situation. The organisation is currently working with communities in other parts of Liberia on food and income security, as well as water and sanitation. CARE plans to extend similar interventions to Nimba.