- The first convoys from Côte d'Ivoire carrying repatriating refugees have started pouring into Liberia. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) expects to return some 200 Liberian refugees a week from Côte d'Ivoire, running cross-border convoys twice a week. Many have not seen their native land for 14 years.
At the beginning of 2004, there were an estimated 340,000 Liberian refugees scattered throughout West Africa. Out of this number, some 6,000 refugees have come home with UNHCR assistance. The refugee agency started facilitating repatriation on 1 October 2004, after peace was largely restored in Liberia. Close to 100,000 Liberians have also made their own way home.
Some 100 Liberian refugees crossed into Liberia Tuesday on the first UNHCR convoy from Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR convoys from Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia are expected to run twice a week, bringing home 200 people at a time. Refugees are continuing to come home from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Ghana by air and sea.
Tuesday's convoy left Blolequin and Petit Guiglo villages in Côte d'Ivoire and crossed into Liberia at Bahalai, where UNHCR staff, government officials and other aid workers greeted the returnees.
At the Toe Tower transit centre, 10 kilometres from Bahalai, returnees received the first instalment of a four-month WFP food ration, money to get to their home community, and commodities to help survive their first months at home and rebuild their lives.
The UNHCR's Francesca Fontanini, reporting from the Liberian border town of Zwedru, spoke to some of the returnees. Agostine Gbaladal, a young Liberian man living in Ivorian exile for 14 years, told Ms Fontanini that he was happy to "finally" be in his own country. "I want to conclude my education," he said. "Because of the war I interrupted my studies so many times, and now I hope to finish for good and look for a job, which will help me to rebuild my house."
The returnees arriving Liberia yesterday were headed for Grand Gedeh and Montserrado counties, areas that are not among the six Liberian counties that have so far been declared safe for return by the Liberian government.
However, the returnees say they will feel safer there than in the unrest in Côte d'Ivoire, a country split in two in 2002 by an armed rebellion. UNHCR has a responsibility to assist refugees even if they insist on returning to areas designated as unsafe, the UN agency informs.
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