UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: Camps begin to close but many IDPs still worried about getting home
PERRY TOWN CAMP, 23 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - The shacks surrounding Sekou Momo's hut have been demolished, and most of his neighbours in this camp for displaced Liberians have headed home.
But the 33-year-old is still there and worried about whether he will make it back to the county where he grew up in time to have his say in October's elections.
“We have been abandoned here. Just look around you. The toilets, bathrooms and water-points have been knocked down, but we’re still here," Momo told IRIN, gesturing at a field of straw and rubble.
Perry Town Camp, which lies less than 20 km from the capital, Monrovia, is one of four sites that is being shut down as more and more internally displaced people (IDPs) trek back to their war-battered towns and villages and try to rebuild their lives.
UN officials estimate that almost two years after Liberia’s civil war ended and eight months after resettlement kicked off, some 160,000 displaced people have returned home, leaving around 140,000 in camps.
For those like Momo, who have registered to vote in their home counties, getting back before presidential and parliamentary polls scheduled for 11 October is a priority.
That means travelling 250 km north to his home in Lofa County, a former rebel stronghold in the far northwest of Liberia.
But, Lofa, like the rest of Liberia, has been ravaged by 14 years of civil war, the rainy season is in full swing, and travellers have to cope with already-bad roads that have deteriorated further into churning ravines of mud.
Like others who have registered to be resettled, Momo got a package of food and other items like plastic sheeting and buckets, as well as money to pay his travel costs.
But then an aspiring politician showed up at the camp with a better offer.
“Someone who wants to stand as a senator in my home county came and promised she would help us get home for free and then we would vote for her,” Momo explained. “So I spent my travel allowance on extra food and clothing for my family. If she doesn’t come for us now, how are we going to get home?”
Abou Moussa, the acting head of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), acknowledges that politics has got mixed in with resettlement.
“Political parties have been going to camps, organising buses to take people home,” Moussa told IRIN in an interview at UNMIL headquarters.
But this did not mean a help-for-votes situation should necessarily arise, he said.
“We need to do an active job in voter education so that people do not fall prey to promises of providing rice and buses,” he explained.
More than 1.3 million Liberians have registered to cast a ballot in the polls designed to seal the West African nation’s transition to peace.
Although just five percent of the total are internally displaced people, the overwhelming majority of those in the camps that did sign up have opted to vote back home.
“We will do all we can to facilitate the return of all IDPs who want to go back,” Moussa said. “From the indications we have this will continue into September and October. It’s very difficult to give a specific date… but by the time we reach election time we will have very few people.”
Others are less optimistic.
“In an ideal world everybody would have been home before the elections, but this is the real world,” one UN official, who declined to be named, told IRIN.
An operation by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to repatriate an estimated 350,000 Liberian refugees who fled to other West African countries is also moving at snail's pace.
By mid-June, UNHCR had only managed to assist the repatriation of 21,000 refugees, mostly from neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea, although the United Nations reckons that a further 100,000 have returned spontaneously.
Some aid groups have criticised the UN for rushing the IDP resettlement process just to get people back in time for the elections. They note that security in some areas is still patchy and proper health and education facilities have yet to be restored.
And some of the remaining residents in the IDP camps voice similar concerns.
“There’s no house for us to go back to in Lofa as far as I know, but I will try to cut sticks and build somewhere for us to live in,” said Flomo Mulbah, a 67-year-old man who has been at Mount Barclay Camp on the outskirts of Monrovia for the last two years.
“As for schools and clinics, I’m not sure what the state of affairs is. Here my kids are in school. There? I just don’t know,” he sighed.
Security fears were preying on the mind of neighbour Sam Sulonteh, who hails from Gbarpolu County, just to the south of Lofa, near the border with Sierra Leone.
“The news we’re getting from back home makes us worry. We hear there’s an imminent threat in Gbarpolu, that there’s secret military training going on,” he said. “I don’t know if I have the heart to go back there and vote if that’s so. That would mean I’ll lose my vote, wouldn’t it?"
There will be no returning to the camps for those unhappy with what they find in their pre-war homes. The huts are being knocked down as soon as people leave.
But for some, whatever state they find their homes in, it has to be an improvement on their current lives.
“There’s no good sleeping place here. Look at how the roof of our hut is leaking. It’s about to collapse,” said Esther Borwah, a mother of nine, as torrential rain battered her already-rickety shelter.
A delay in issuing transport payments has kept her in Mount Barclay Camp for the time being, although UN officials say the blockage is being dealt with.
“As soon as my money comes, we will leave,” Borwah said. “Next rainy season, God willing, we will be home.”
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