A Liberian's bittersweet journey back home

As the Boeing 737 christened "Fortitude" lifts off the runway, bound for Liberia, many of the passengers giggle nervously, like children getting on an amusement-park ride.

Joe Geetoe, like most of those on board, has never flown before. "I've never had the opportunity," he says, as the sandy coastline of Ghana disappears below.

Opportunities have been scarce in Geetoe's life. He was born in Liberia, a country that has known little but war and poverty since 1989, when rebel leader Charles Taylor led an uprising that eventually toppled the government.

Last year, all eyes were on this small West African nation. The international community, including the US, dispatched troops to intervene between President Taylor's forces and rebel fighters, and by August a peace deal was struck.

Earlier this month Geetoe was one of 97 people on the first official repatriation flight for Liberian refugees since the war ended. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, predicts that 100,000 of the estimated 340,000 Liberians in West Africa will return home by year's end. But as Geetoe soon learns, trading the relative security of a refugee's life for a new start is fraught with risks in a country as ravaged as Liberia.

His teenage years in the capital, Monrovia, were spent trying to dodge the undisciplined and unaccountable fighters who harassed, beat up, or forcibly recruited boys like him. Then on April 6, 1996, while on a trip to the market, a battle cut off his route home. He took refuge in the port for three days until a ship took him and some 300 other passengers to the coast of Ghana.

The plane banks right, heading west along the Ghanaian coast. Geetoe spends most of the next two hours staring out, trying to get his first glimpse of Liberia in eight years, but the view is often obscured by clouds.

He doesn't know where his parents are, or even if they're still alive. He doesn't know if he can get a job, despite the laminated computer-training certificates he carries with him. He isn't even sure where he'll sleep tonight.

A hymn of gratitude

When the weather clears, he sees a swath of green, the forests that were once battlegrounds. Liberia's war was a criminal conflict: factional leaders fought for power solely to enrich themselves, encouraged their soldiers to loot instead of paying them salaries, and cared nothing for the civilians whose lives they destroyed along the way. Still, for Geetoe it's home.

"We're now commencing our final descent to Roberts International Airport, Monrovia," announces the pilot, and a cheer goes up. Geetoe pulls on his earlobes, agitated by the pressure change. As the plane lands and taxis, people at the back start a rousing hymn. "Thank you my Lord," it goes. In the front of theplane, passengers start singing the Liberian national anthem.

The white helicopters of the 14,000-strong peacekeeping mission - the largest UN force in the world - are lined up on the tarmac. For some, it's a reassuring sight. For others, it's a pointed reminder that the peace is tenuous. The plane stops, the door opens, and the orderly fashion with which the refugees boarded breaks down in their enthusiasm to step on Liberian soil.

"It is now time to make peace," says Wesley Johnson, vice chairman of Liberia's transitional government, during a ceremony welcoming the returnees. "If you meet someone who forced you out of the country, who may have killed your family, open up your arms, forgive them, put the past in the past and move forward."

"We have to do it. It's the only way," Geetoe agrees. "Otherwise, we'll always be at war with one another."

Once the ceremony ends, the refugees line up in front of an official who takes their ID cards and punches a hole through them. They are no longer refugees, but returnees.

As Geetoe steps out of the terminal, he looks a little bewildered, surrounded by ragged little boys and girls selling candy, water, and bananas. "I'm missing Ghana," he admits.

Minibuses are waiting, each heading to a different part of Monrovia, destinations that must sound marvellous to the ears of the returning Liberians: Nukru Town, Gardnersville, Duala. Geetoe is bound for Jacob's Town.

It's 6 p.m., a magical hour in Africa, when the heat of the sun relents, the light fades to a soft blue, and the sound of crickets is the loudest thing heard. But night falls quickly at the equator, and the convoy manager is worried about the returnees having to make their way home in the dark in Monrovia. The war is over but crime remains a problem.

The 40-mile drive to the capital is a mural of green: mango trees, stubby palm trees, and thick bushes. Two types of buildings also line the route: those that were destroyed or looted and are now just blackened shells, and those that have been built since the war ended, crisply painted with shiny tin roofs.

Every few minutes, Geetoe peppers the driver with questions on two themes: Is the war really over? How much do things cost? He has difficulty really believing the driver's comment that "all the bad, bad things are gone."

In the city, the air is heavy with exhaust from the bumper-to-bumper traffic, diesel fumes from the rumbling electrical generators, and smoke from thousands of charcoal cooking fires. Monrovia is arguably the darkest capital city in the world. Its electricity grid was destroyed in 1990 and has yet to be rebuilt. Wires dangle uselessly from the few utility poles and towers still standing.

Suddenly Geetoe shouts, "That's my place, my place is here." He grabs his bags and hops out. He is now on his own.

In the dim light he picks his way around mud puddles, past the James David Block Factory, where day laborers make cinderblocks in the open air. "I know the way," he says, stepping confidently through the darkness, through eight years of exile. He approaches a dwelling where a few people are sitting in the cool evening. "Joe, my brother!" shouts one of the men.

"Joe!" exclaims a young woman, who jumps in the air and throws her arms around him. "Joe! Joe! It's really you!" cheers a second young woman, who hugs him too.

"It's been so long," says Joe again and again.

This is the house of Austin Saydee, a friend of Geetoe's since childhood. It's where he spends his first night back in his homeland, sharing Mr. Saydee's mattress.

A global trend

Joe Geetoe's return to Liberia is part of a hopeful trend: the number of refugees worldwide is dropping, as more people are going home than are fleeing their countries anew. Led by Afghans returning from Pakistan and Iran, more than 3.5 million refugees have gone back to their country of origin since 2002, according to UNHCR.

Refugees have gone back to Liberia before, only to see their country collapse again and again into conflict. Twice in the 1990s, UNHCR organized similar voyages home for Liberians during lulls in the war. This time is different, UN officials say. The peacekeeping force is deployed, the warring factions are being disarmed, the former strongman Taylor is in exile, and elections are planned for next year, they argue.

But aid agency workers say they're worried that too little is being done to help Liberia rebuild its ruined infrastructure, kickstart its economy, and give its frustrated population job opportunities. Without such help, they say war could again envelop Liberia.

It takes five minutes to walk from Mr. Saydee's house to his own family home the next day. Geetoe says it was beautiful when he fled in 1996, but now it's a wreck, with crumbling walls and a tarpaulin for a roof. Even worse, a family of 16 is living in it, themselves displaced by the war from their home in the countryside. Edwin Gborkau, the emaciated elderly head of the family, tells Geetoe he paid about $220 to buy the place from someone who posed as its owner in 1997, a phenomenon said to be widespread in Monrovia.

"How do I get the place back?" asks Geetoe, who fled Liberia without even a change of clothes, let alone a title deed. He walks around the yard where he used to play soccer as a kid. Mr. Gborkau eyes him cautiously, worried that he'll be taken to court and his family made homeless.

Days pass and Geetoe is beginning to wear out his welcome at the Saydees. Through the thin walls he hears Saydee's mother complaining about having to feed their guest. The reality of his new life begins setting in.

He briefly reunites with the daughter he hasn't seen since she was six months old. Her mother took her to Ivory Coast during the war and has remarried.

But the question that plagues him most is the fate of the rest of his family. The last time he had any word from them was late in 1996, when he'd heard that they fled Monrovia. He has a mother, Sarah; a father, Henry; four brothers, and two sisters, and he's desperate to find them.

"Do you believe my Pa is still living?" he bluntly asks Saydee.

"The story is conflicting," Saydee tries to explain. "Some people say Joe's parents are in Guinea, other people say they're in Sierra Leone." Still others have told Geetoe they are dead.

Second guessing

"I've got nothing here, no family, no means of living," Geetoe says in despair. He attended high school, studied computers while living as a refugee, and wants to work for a UN agency. Yet he knows unemployment is 80 percent here and university graduates are driving taxis.

"Sometimes I feel like going back to Ghana," he confesses after a several discouraging days of looking for work. "In Ghana, we were all Liberians together, and everybody stretched out their hands to each other. Here, people are always afraid war will come, so they keep what they have to themselves."

For Geetoe and the hundreds of refugees now arriving here, the journey back to Liberia isn't over. It's just beginning.

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