Liberians, once refugees themselves, aid those fleeing Ivory Coast

Fearing violence, more than 30,000 people have fled Ivory Coast for Liberia, which is scrambling to help them. Nearly two-thirds of the refugees are children and more than half are female.

Paige McClanahan
Employees of the Norwegian Refugee Council (in orange shirts) register refugees, who have fled to Liberia from Ivory Coast, and gave them soap, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans for water, and other supplies on Jan. 12.

Lucie Ikakehou stands in a long line of people in the searing midday heat, hugging her swollen belly with one hand and stroking her daughter’s head with the other. She’s waiting for a handout of a blanket, a sleeping mat, and other supplies – essentials that she has gone without for the past four weeks.

Five months pregnant, Lucie walked five days from her village in western Ivory Coast to reach this small outpost just over the border into Liberia. Word had reached her village that civil war was coming back to her country.

“I was scared,” she says. So she and her daughter fled.

There is no camp to take her in, although aid workers are rushing to build one. For now, Lucie, her daughter, and thousands of others like them are simply squeezing into the homes of Liberian villagers along the border.

Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo and president-elect Alassane Ouattara remain fixed in an increasingly violent standoff after a disputed election on Nov. 28. Fearing violence, more than 30,000 Ivorians have already abandoned their homes and sought refuge in Liberia, their neighbor to the west.

Aid workers here in Nimba County are scrambling to accommodate the refugees, but distributing food and other essentials is not easy in this part of the world, where a 40-mile journey on a deeply rutted road can take more than three painful hours in an SUV.

Here in Gblarly, about 15 miles from the Ivorian border, aid workers from the United Nations, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Liberian government registered refugees and gave them soap, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans for water, and other supplies on Jan. 12.

There was no food to hand out that day, even though the refugees complained of hunger. Several, including a number of pregnant women, said that they had had little to eat since they began the journey from Ivory Coast. Some have already been here for more than a month.

Food distribution is just beginning, said Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

As of Jan. 12, only one supply of high-energy biscuits had been provided for the refugees. But more food was on the way: A nearby town got a batch of food on Jan. 13, and Gblarly received its first delivery the following day. The supplies include bulgur wheat, beans, vegetable oil, and a blend of cornmeal and soy flour, a mixture that is meant to help stave off diarrhea.

Even though there was no food to be had on Jan. 12, several hundred refugees showed up to get their share of the other provisions. Children played in the shade of the two five-ton UN trucks that had come laden with supplies, while their parents stood patiently in a long line that stretched across a dry, scrubby field.

Nearly two-thirds of the refugees are children, while 55 percent are female, according to official numbers. The UN does not track the percentage of the women refugees who are pregnant or breast-feeding, but a quick glance at the crowd that day suggested the proportion was high.

Zouhou René Megui, a soft-spoken man who works as a nurse’s aide back home in Ivory Coast, rested in the shade of a tree after collecting his rations. He arrived in Liberia with his wife and five children about a month ago. His family has already grown since: his wife gave birth to their sixth child, a boy, on Jan. 6.

The baby is healthy, but his wife is very sick.

“My wife is ill and there’s no medicine for her,” he says. “We need a water pump and drugs in the village where we’re staying. The health conditions here scare me.”

With no camp to house them, the refugees have been staying in the homes of villagers just over the border from Ivory Coast.

The Liberians have been very generous, several Ivorians said. The refugees and their hosts speak the same language and often have close family ties, as populations have shifted frequently over the porous border along the Cestos River.

Many of the host villagers were refugees themselves during the brutal civil conflict in Liberia a decade ago, when some 40,000 Liberians sought shelter in Ivory Coast. Now they are returning the favor.

But space is tight and provisions are scarce in the villages along the border. One refugee complained of being crammed into a room with 13 other people; he said he had no blankets to keep him warm at night.

The United Nations and the Liberian government are working quickly to set up a camp to house any refugees who want to move in. The site for the camp has been chosen: a plot of nearly 300 acres outside the town of Bahn, about 35 miles from here. Several acres have already been cleared with the help of local volunteers. Officials say they hope it will be ready to receive refugees before the end of the month.

When it’s up and running, the camp will be just like a regular village, officials say, with individual homes for families, a school, a medical clinic, and a regular supply of food and water for those who live there. Similar camps in other parts of the world have existed for years, effectively becoming new towns in their own right.

Megui, the nurse’s aide, says he and his family will go to the camp when it’s ready. He’s eager to get back to work and he wants his children to return to school. He has no idea when he will be able to go back home to Ivory Coast.

Asked whether he supports Gbagbo or Ouattara for the presidency, Megui shakes his head and looks at the ground. He’s apolitical, he says.

“I give my faith to God. For me, that’s my choice.”

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