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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Thursday 28 April 2005

BENIN-TOGO: Thousands of Togolese flee post-poll violence, seek refuge across border

COME, 28 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - The day Togo's elections results were announced, a tear gas grenade was lobbed into Ayele's home. Later that evening, soldiers surrounded her house and fired off several rounds.

The 65-year-old hid in her bedroom and when day broke she gathered her children and grandchildren together and hotfooted it the 20 km to safety in Benin.

Ayele is one of more than 4,000 people to have fled Togo since Tuesday when Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the man who ruled the country for almost four decades, was declared the winner of a poll his opponents say was rigged.

Within minutes of the announcement, deadly clashes erupted between machete-wielding opposition youths and rifle-toting security forces in the seaside capital Lome, and later in the coastal city of Aneho, some 45 km to the east.

Ayele, a prominent women's opposition figure in Aneho, is now living in a tent across the border in the town of Come, where an impromptu camp has been set up by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

"We walked from dawn till dusk. We couldn't stay there," she told IRIN on Thursday, pulling her 18-month-old grandson to her. "And now we can't go back. We have been marked out as opposition so as long as Gnassingbe is in power, we're in danger."

In a neighbouring tent, 35-year-old Foli recounted how he had fled Aneho with just the clothes on his back after seeing one of his friends beaten to death by soldiers right before his eyes.

"We couldn't even recover his body," he said, his voice cracking. "My neighbour's kids had their arms broken because their parents weren't home when the soldiers came knocking."

"We took a boat to cross the lagoon and then we walked along the beachfront until we got to the border," Foli explained. "Things are in a real mess back home. We'll stay here until calm returns to the country."

Hungry

"But we're hungry," he added. "We were given some bread last night but today we've not had anything. My two-year-old is crying, I think partly with hunger and partly because he can sense the fear."

Mamadou Balde, a UNHCR official in Come, admitted that there had been delays in distributing food but said that fresh supplies were on the way up from Benin's capital Cotonou and should arrive shortly.

UN officials said more than 500 refugees had already been trucked to the camp, which lies 18 km from the Togolese border.

But thousands more remain near the frontier. UNHCR said that 2,000 people, most of them women and children, had crossed over into Benin on Wednesday night alone, bringing the total there to more than 3,600.

An IRIN correspondent at the Hilakondji border station saw hundreds of people milling around, waiting for transport to ferry them to friends and family already living in Benin or to the makeshift camps.

Women, balancing plastic bags of belongings on their heads, tried to soothe grumpy babies tied to their backs, and cheer up older children tired from the walk to safety.

For some, the escape proved just as dangerous as the trouble they were fleeing.

Akwele, in her 40s, was lying in hospital in Come, spitting blood and waiting for doctors to remove a bullet that narrowly missed her lung.

"With all the chaos and the beatings, I decided it wasn't safe to stay but I was shot in the back as I was crossing the lagoon at Aneho," she told IRIN.

Other people being treated in the hospital had been shot in the feet and legs, medical staff said.

"I was lucky compared to some people though," said Akwele. "There were those who took a hit to the stomach and toppled into the water."

Reuters news agency quoted a medical worker in Aneho as saying two villages on the road to Benin had been attacked by helicopters, and that two people had been killed and six injured.

Will people continue to flee?

Benin, which lies to Togo's east, is not the only country to which those fleeing the post-election violence have escaped. UNHCR estimates that around 450 people have crossed the western border into Ghana since the election results were announced.

"Most of these people are either staying with friends and families or in hotels on the Ghana side of the border," Thomas Albrecht, the UNHCR representative in Accra, told IRIN.

Officials are now waiting to see whether the flow of refugees will subside.

A tense calm returned to the streets of the Togolese capital Lome on Thursday, with residents clearing the barricades under the watchful eye of the security forces.

"There are some people with bundles of belongings on their heads, but fewer than yesterday," one UN official said by telephone.

In the meantime, some people are cashing in on the fear prompting residents to flee.

Just beyond the confines of Lome, near the Ghanaian border, an IRIN correspondent saw a group of 20 people haggling with border guards to get across the frontier without the requisite documents -- for which the standard 'fee' is usually 500 CFA (US $1).

"Now they're wanting 2,000 CFA (US $4) to let us through," said one woman in her 40s who did not want to be identified. "I left my home because I'm scared the soldiers will come. But now I don't have enough money on me to get out. I've been trying to negotiate but I'm not getting anywhere."


[ENDS]

 

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005



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