Global Politics

Liberians Strained in Helping Ivorian Refugees

By Bonnie Allen

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In south-eastern Liberia, just a few miles from the border with Ivory Coast, David Hotto uses a machete to hack through the bush.

The Ivorian refugee has found some work cutting sugarcane, to earn a little money.

"I'm farmer," Hotto said. "I do it to eat."

Hotto fled to Liberia in April, one of the 160,000 Ivorians who fled across the border to escape violence in their country. Hotto said militants loyal to elected President Alassane Ouattara invaded his village because he and his neighbors supported Laurent Gbagbo, the former president who refused to cede power. Gbagbo has since been ousted, but Hotto said it is still too dangerous to go home.

"Everybody holding arms," he said. "There's no real government now in place."

Ouattara has vowed to create a national unity government and reconciliation process. But there is still no national army. Hotto said he won't go back until Ouattara disarms all the rogue young men who picked up guns to fight — on either side.
While Hotto lingers, things are becoming difficult in the Liberian village where he is waiting it out.

Its population has more than doubled. In some homes, a dozen refugees squeeze into one small bedroom.

Most of the people who fled Ivory Coast during the violence have refused to move into formal camps. They are staying put in border villages that are closer to home, and similar to their own farm communities.

The refugees are spread out across 200 small villages. It has become a huge burden on already impoverished areas.
"We got no food to eat," said Kemah Sandi, a widow and mother of seven. She is feeding and sheltering Ivorian refugees because they come from the same ethnic tribe and speak the same local dialect.

"They tell us, 'oh, you my Ma now. You take care of us.' You can't say no," Sandi said.

But eight years after the end of its own civil war, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries it the world, and it still hasn't been able to ramp up agriculture production. The country imports more than half of its staple foods.
Now, the refugees are jeopardizing next year's rice crop.

Mary Gaye uses a long wooden pole to pound the little seed rice that she has left, barely enough to bother planting. The Liberian woman has been feeding 15 refugees in her house since December.

"I'm really catching a tough time," Gaye said. "They've been here so long."

The refugees staying in her home, like most of the Ivorian refugees, are supporters of Ouattara. They crossed the border early in the crisis, when Gbagbo's army attacked.

Officials from Ouattara's new government recently visited this area to tell refugees it's safe to return home.

But Jean Paul Tumule said his farming tools were looted back home and he didn't get his crop in, so he will stay in Liberia where he can get dry rations from the World Food Program.

"The crisis is not over. We're in the middle of it," said Ibrahima Coly, who is in charge of the United Nations refugee agency's efforts in Liberia. He predicts most refugees will stay in Liberia for a year, and he is worried that Liberia can't handle it.

"This country is coming from war. The local population is struggling to survive," Coly said. "If we don't have funds, the situation will be more and more difficult."

Coly said he needs $120 million to meet their needs, but so far, donor countries have given less than half that amount.
As the rainy season gets under way, international aid agencies are scrambling to fix bridges, build washrooms, install water systems, and improve limited health services to remote areas. All those, before six months of torrential downpours wipe out roads and cut off access to those border villages.

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    The Bahn camp in Liberia, where some Ivory Coast refugees have found shelter. (Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development)

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    Ivorian refugees in Liberia (Photo: Bonnie Allen)

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