Mano River Report: "I am from Lofa in Liberia"

Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. UNOCHA. 1998 "Principle 14: Every internally displaced person has the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his or her residence."
Current Context The population of Liberia has seen hard times over the years. Many Liberians are all-too familiar with camp life, having been forced to flee their homes during the eight-year civil war in the 90s. This is now often called "the first war" by Liberians, and is not covered in this report. All events described in this report are related to the current conflict. All names have been changed to preserve the confidentiality of the individuals. Several things have happened to Liberians since 2000, when the first attacks of this new conflict took place in the Upper Lofa region. They have found themselves in one of several situations, which has defined the options open to them in terms of where to flee. The option an individual has "chosen" (it is difficult to call it a choice when people explain, "we ran in the only direction where there was no fighting") determines the kind of label they are given (refugee or displaced) and therefore, what kind of assistance they receive. If you are from the northern and western regions of Liberia today, you could be an internally displaced person in Liberia living in any number of camps, a refugee in Ivory Coast, a refugee in Sierra Leone, or a refugee in Guinea. You could also still be trapped in the fighting inside northern Liberia. The conflict in Liberia is escalating daily. The displaced camps of Bong County are empty due to fresh attacks taking place on Gbarnga town. Camp residents have fled along with town residents (approximately 40,000 people in total) in fear of being caught in the crossfire. This has caused another major wave of people on the run either out of the country (primarily to Ivory Coast and Guinea), towards Monrovia, or hiding in the bush. For the vast majority of people this is not the first or the last time they have fled from war. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. UNOCHA. 1998 "Principle 15: Internally displaced persons have (b) the right to seek asylum in another country"
I am an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) Since 2000, the war has greatly destabilized Lofa County, and more recently has made steady progress into Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, and recently, Bong counties, causing people to flee in front of the advancing hostilities. Aminata, Voice of America (VOA) camp Liberia March 11, 2002 "I am from Fasapo village, near to Foya, in Lofa. I left nine months ago [June, 2001] when we were attacked. During this attack my 20-year-old brother was abducted..I never saw him again. I was pregnant at the time ... We went to Buedu in Sierra Leone because it was close, and we thought they would be safe there. It took two days of walking ... "We did not carry anything with us and had to beg food from villagers along the way ... the lack of food was a problem for us [5 children; aged 5 mos. to 12 yrs.] ... I was very pregnant and we had no place to sleep in Buedu except outside or in the market stalls. In total we stayed there for two months ... Then I heard that there were NGOs in Jene Manna [Liberia] and I decided to go there. "It was difficult for me to leave [Sierra Leone]. We were stopped by the Sierra Leone Army in all the villages along the way to the border and forced to pay for 'clearance'. It was [US$2.00] per person, plus they took what they wanted from our bundles. If we did not have enough money, we had to stay in the village and work to pay our way through. "It took two weeks of walking to reach Jene Manna and I gave birth on the way inside of Liberia. After about seven months, one day we heard gunshots outside Jene Manna, so I decided to leave. We walked for two days to reach Lofa Bridge. We stayed for two weeks to rest because the walking is not easy for the children. We ate only bush yams and bananas during this time. We heard gunshots and fighting near to the village again and so decided to go to Gbama ... We only stayed for about one week when we again heard gunshots and decided to flee to Kley Junction because there were NGOs there. It took us five days walking ... "I missed the last food distribution, and so I had to beg food from other people. One afternoon shooting started all around the town so we had to run again. We went in the direction of Monrovia. We stayed in a small village for two weeks, waiting for my aunt and son that I lost in the confusion of the attack. When I found them we all left to come to VOA because we heard there was a camp there and we could get food. "I arrived about five days ago, and I was registered but I have not gotten a ration card. I know that there are many people paying for these but I have no money left. I have received nothing since I arrived in the camp. I did have the chance to find my sister in the camp and she has helped me to arrange a place to sleep for me and my children and she is sharing her food with us." This is a typical journey for people fleeing insecure areas of Liberia. The voyage that has brought them to IDP camps has taken months, and in some cases, years, especially for those who fled Lofa in 2000 and 2001. Many people have passed through a series of camps in their progressive moves, always just one step in front of the fighting. Life in these camps is often difficult for people, most of who arrive exhausted after walking for long periods in the bush, fleeing in fear of being attacked or harassed by security forces, without knowing where to go and what awaits them. Others left their homes due to their immediate fear of being caught in the fighting, or due to extensive harassment by security forces. This harassment, including forced recruitment and torture, increased greatly after the threat, broadcast on the BBC Focus on Africa radio program, by LURD of an attack Monrovia, and the subsequent declaration of a State of Emergency by President Taylor on February 8, 2002. This new influx of refugees began at the end of 2001 following some major attacks in Lofa. Others arrived after the declaration of a State of Emergency and the resulting hostilities from the security forces. Sahr, age 33 Refugee man Jendema, Sierra Leone February 16, 2002 "I left my home (near Kolahun) on February 9, 2001 ... because we could hear sustained and heavy shelling. I left behind three people from my family; one who was too old to walk, and two others who stayed behind to help her. It has been one year now and still I have not seen any of them." Others found themselves caught in open conflict, and they were forced to run away to literally save their lives. This means that they fled with only the clothes on their backs, and often lost members of their families in the chaos. Displaced woman, age 41 Voice of America camp Liberia - March 11, 2002 "I left my home on December 7, 2001. We were working on the farm when we heard gunshots in the direction of our village. We saw people running and they were saying that it was being attacked. Seven of us were on the farm and we all ran away without even going back to our house. I left behind two sisters. I still have no news from them." Some of these people have crossed the border into Sierra Leone, via the southern region of Zimmi (Jendema). Those who were trapped by the fighting in Upper Lofa crossed through Kailahun District (Koindu and Buedu) and into Guinea (Gueckedou). However, most people leaving Lofa had already left their homes several months ago, and had been surviving hidden in the bush. They had not been able to reach the camps in Bong and Gbarpolu (Tarvey, Jene Manna, Sawmill, etc.) or those closer to Upper Lofa (Belefanai) due to the location of the front lines. Many families had been attacked by several different groups during the past year, and these attacks not only involved abductions but also rapes, killings and burning people alive in their homes. Many families have had great difficulty escaping. One mother described: Fatu, Liberian refugee woman Tekoulu transit point, Guinea March 17, 2002 "I am from a place near to Kolahun. I left my home on June 10, 2001 when we were attacked ... at 6 a.m. and we fled to the bush in the direction of Kolahun. We walked for 2 weeks. It is not a long distance, but fighters were everywhere in the bush and so we would walk for a little, then run and hide until they passed. Sometimes, the pro-government troops would just shoot continuously into the surrounding bush along the paths or roads they were walking on. The only direction that was safe was the road leading to Kolahun. "At night we would just brush the ground in a small area and sleep there on the bare earth. Often we did not even have space for us to lie down and so we had to try to sleep sitting up. The only food that we had was bush yams. All the villages in the bush that we saw were burned and everyone was gone. We saw many people in the bush and they had the same stories as us, throwing grenades into houses with people in them, babies on their mother's backs having their head chopped off. We saw one older man with part of one hand amputated by fighters. They told him to "go ... and show them this mark." [They personally did not see more amputees.] "We stayed in Kolahun for almost one year. Life there was manageable but difficult. Everything you own is property of the fighters and you are forced to work for them ... The young men and boys are often used in Kolahun to go to Guinea to get supplies for the soldiers. 'Look at my head. All these wounds are from carrying so many supplies for [them].' [her son; aged 13 years]. "We stayed in the town until the big attack on December 25, 2001. The attack was very bad and we counted over 200 bodies in the town itself. You could see them just laying there inside their houses. No one knows how many died running away and in the river. Pro-government troops stayed in Kolahun for 3 days. There is one young boy in the town who had both of his hands and his ears chopped off. He is still alive. "We ran to the bush and stayed there for almost all of this time. At first we could not make any kind of bush camp because things were too tense. For several weeks we often had to run because we kept hearing shooting. One man in our group died in the bush from a gunshot to the back. "(When we reached the border) and stayed in Wetkama for two weeks ... Along the way one woman fell very sick and died. We tried to carry her but she was too sick. This is her daughter that I will take with me now [approximately aged four years and severely malnourished]." The final driving force for people to risk passing through such dangerous areas seems to be lack of food. The new arrivals report that the food situation is getting difficult, some saying civilians and soldiers have been fighting over food. Also the timing for crossing into Guinea is critical. Once the rains begin, the river between Lofa and Guinea will not be passable, and this would mean being stuck in Lofa during the most difficult period of the hunger gap (June - September). The same concerns were voiced among the more recently arrived IDPs in the camps in Liberia. Displaced woman, age approximately 25 Belefanai camp, Liberia March 9, 2002 "It was getting too difficult in the bush and there was not enough food for the children [4 children aged 18 months to 6 years]. I myself would have stayed in the bush if I did not have the children to think of. There are many people in the bush that are too unsure of the way or what they will find, to try to come to Belefanai." Those arriving in Kailahun District in Sierra Leone are arriving from areas of Upper Lofa controlled by pro-government forces, and medically these people have been in the worst shape. Life for them has been extremely difficult. Abductions and other acts of violence, especially rape and killings, have been wide spread. People have also been surviving in the bush on nothing but wild foods for months. Upon arrival in Sierra Leone many of the children are malnourished, and others require urgent medical care. Liberian refugee woman age over 55 January 2002 " The fighters arrived and ordered the town [approximately 150 people] to move to another village with them ... I was with my husband and 5 children. A local family accepted us into their home. Then one day the pro- government troops came to the town ... They took 3 of my children away [a girl of 14 years, and two boys aged 7 and 4 years]. We were very frightened the soldiers would return, so we went into the bush ... "Several weeks passed before the troops found us again. They tied up my husband and beat him severely with their fists and their rifle butts. The soldiers told me that if I didn't lead them to our property they would kill my husband. I told them ... they could have everything ... They ordered my husband to carry the property and go with them ... We tried to go to Sierra Leone ... but we were taken by fighters to [another village]. We stayed there for 2 months. It was there that I learned my husband had been killed. I also received a message ... from my daughter who was being held as the wife of a colonel ... she had been separated from my boys who haven't been seen since. I am sure they were also killed ... "My biggest worry today is that I do not have a special length of cloth so that I can carry my grandchild on my back ... I do not know what to do tomorrow. I have lost my family." [She arrived at the MSF therapeutic feeding center with her malnourished grandson near death.] Those arriving in Guinea are coming from regions of Lofa County that are held by anti-government troops. They tell stories of forced labor, being used as human shields and having their movements controlled by the fighters. Liberian refugee woman Tekoulu transit point Guinea - March 17, 2002 "Sometimes fighters would come and round up people out of the bush camps and take them to Kolahun. This was either to work for them (washing clothes, carrying supplies, cooking) or to just go and sit down with them. The fighters do not like to live alone and they told us that the civilians are their protection from the enemy. "We decided to leave three weeks ago because things were quiet. Also, there is no food. We have been living on bush yams and mangos because the fighters took all our rice, and life is getting too difficult. Look at my children [three are malnourished; one of them severely]. Even outside of town, the fighters can take anything from you, even the clothes you are wearing." At the crossing points for those fleeing to Guinea, a racket has been organized that exploits the civilians caught in the middle. In order to get into Guinea, a pass is needed from the fighters controlling this northern part of Lofa. Liberian refugee woman Tekoulu transit point Guinea - March 17, 2002 "We were allowed to leave as long as we have a pass ... It is [US$1.00] per person. The government troops in Guinea will not allow you to cross if you don't have these papers. This pass business started at the end of January [which coincides with the new refugees entering Guinea from Lofa]. "If you don't have any money to buy the paper, you have to get a contract with the fighters or one of their girlfriends to carry coffee or cocoa to Guinea, or to carry supplies for them. If you have no one strong enough in your family to do this kind of work, you will never get the money to buy the pass." Not many young men, young women (without children) or old people were seen in this group. Families reported that very few men were allowed to buy the passes, and that many sons were abducted to work and fight for any of the various armed groups. These families fear that most of the people taken by pro-government forces are dead. For those who fled inside Liberia, they too had their movements blocked repeatedly, and were prevented from seeking refugee from the war. Two of the more prominent instances include the stopping of displaced at Belefanai (Saint Paul's Bridge) in Bong County, and Kley Junction in Bomi County. Displaced man, age 34 Belefanai camp, Liberia March 9, 2002 " We were blocked at the bridge for one month by government troops. At first they did not explain why they were keeping us. Finally they explained that it was for security reasons. We had to eat bush yams and beg food from the villagers to live. Finally, a truck came but they would only allow women to cross. I became afraid when I saw this, so I and some other men decided to try to escape. A few days later we ran away from them and traveled further down the river to a secluded place. It was there that we crossed." Displaced woman age approximately 25 Belefanai camp, Liberia March 9, 2002 "The soldiers stopped us all at the bridge. They told us that we could not leave for security reasons. We could hear the fighting ... and they wanted us to stay there in case they were attacked. If you did not know someone with the fighters, or if you did not have money you could not cross. We stayed there for one week because we had no means to negotiate with the soldiers. Finally, I was able to get them to allow my children and my husband to cross. I stayed for some time and then too was able to leave." Sahr: " ... there was shooting again very close to us. Everyone there ran away and we heard LRRRC was telling people to go to Kley Junction, so that is where we went (this was their 5th out of 9 times to escape fighting). The soldiers would not let us move. I wanted to go to Monrovia but they told us we could not pass. Then the government told us that we would be taken to another camp. We were waiting to be relocated from when the fighting happened there too. There was shooting all around the town and we ran away." Those who crossed into Sierra Leone at Jendema (Bo Waterside on the Liberian side of the border) are mostly people who fled the Grand Cape Mount, Bomi Hills and the Greater Monrovia areas. They have all arrived by their own means, either on foot or in a hired vehicle. There is a series of over 20 crossing points along the Mano River between Bo Waterside and Congo. Many people reported that to be allowed to cross the border, they had to pay the soldiers in cash, and quite often give the soldiers whatever they wanted from their possessions. For those who were forced to pay and did not have money, they stayed near the crossing point trying to sell some of their personal belongings to raise the money for the "fees". Sahr: " ... we decided to go to Sierra Leone, hoping that we would be able to stop moving. At the border, the soldiers were demanding money from us before we could cross the bridge. I have registered in the camp and I am now waiting for the trucks. I don't know where I will be going. I just hope that someone can help me find my family that I left behind in Lofa." Displaced man, age 21. Bo Waterside, Liberia - March 5, 2002: "I have been here for five days. The immigration and customs both want money and I don't have it. I ran away from the soldiers in Monrovia and now I am confused on what to do. How can I get across the bridge?" The one UNHCR protection officer for all of Liberia had not been seen at this crossing point by anyone interviewed. No one had come to try to negotiate their safe, and unhindered passage to a country of asylum. This paints a grim picture for the people who are still in the inaccessible areas of northern Liberia. From the information gathered through interviews, it seems that the poor people - those without money or laborers in the family - are captives of the fighters. Even after they finally reach a camp, the assistance and protection the people can expect varies, depending on which camp they go to. For those who reach the camps close to Monrovia and close to the offices of humanitarian organizations, there are many assistance programs (including "Child Friendly Spaces"). But if you happen to have crossed at the St. Paul Bridge and are living in Belefanai camp (closed the first week of May as the population evacuated toward Gbarnga) you will almost never see any NGO or UN presence, even though there is a military base just next to the IDP camp. More recently, as news of these refugee camps has reached many people inside Liberia, people have started arriving on their own at the newly converted returnee-to-refugee camps around Bo and Pujehun in Southern Province. Some people wait for days in Jendema after arriving in Sierra Leone, and find no information about what to do. Others are not crossing the border at places where they can register with UNCHR. These people continue their journey to the camps on their own. However, once arriving, they found that the new UNHCR policy is not to register people directly inside the camps. This means that anyone who has walked from Liberia, crossed the border and made it to the camps in Bo and Pujehun must then return (on foot) to the UNHCR points in Jendema or Zimmi to be registered. There they must wait (where there is no food assistance) to be put in the UNHCR convoys, and then be taken back to one of the four camps. Only then will they be eligible for humanitarian assistance and be recognized as a refugee.