January 19, 2016 / 7:19 AM / 4 years ago

Heading home after Ebola, Ivorian refugees in Liberia bear scars of war

BAHN REFUGEE CAMP, Liberia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Yamthe Lambert’s eyes fill with tears as he recalls searching for his wife and six children while masses of people fled their homes in fear at the height of Ivory Coast’s 2011 civil war.

Refugees from Ivory Coast walk with their their belongings through Grand Gedeh county in eastern Liberia March 23, 2011. REUTERS/Simon Akam

The 63-year-old, who was working as a miner away from his home city of Guiglo when the conflict erupted, rushed home to search for his family as the country descended into chaos, but instead found his house and car set ablaze.

“I was too late, they had already gone,” he said, sitting inside his home at Bahn refugee camp in northeast Liberia, a vast tract dotted with trees and clay-brick houses some 50 km (30 miles) from the Ivory Coast border.

Lambert was among more than 200,000 Ivorians who fled to Liberia after a disputed presidential election in November 2010 plunged Ivory Coast into its second civil war in a decade.

Having crossed the border to Liberia alone in 2011, Lambert feared he would never see his family again.

But when an aid worker who moved from Bahn to another camp spotted a boy that resembled Lambert and discovered that it was his son, the family were reunited - after three years apart.

“When my family arrived at Bahn, we embraced tightly for 20 minutes without letting go – we couldn’t let go,” Lambert said.

Now, five years after the civil war forced them to seek refuge in Liberia, and a year-and-a-half after their hopes of heading home were crushed by the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, Lambert and his family are preparing to go home.

Most of the Ivorians who sought refuge in Liberia started heading home a year after the 2011 conflict. But some 35,000 refugees who remained were left in limbo when the spread of Ebola caused Liberia to shut its borders to curb the outbreak.

With the epidemic under control, and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor as the border remains closed, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has restarted a drive to take refugees home and help to rebuild their lives.

Several convoys carrying hundreds of people have crossed the border since December, and with almost a third of the refugees having expressed a desire to go home as soon as possible, thousands more are set to follow in the coming months.

“We are desperate to go back - to have a real home, and a real life,” said Lambert, squeezing his wife’s hand tightly.

SCARRED BY VIOLENCE

On the outskirts of Bahn, one of three camps hosting Ivorian refugees in Liberia, several women sift through a wheelbarrow piled high with clothes, picking out tops, skirts and shoes.

Nearby, a group of men in brightly coloured shirts huddle in the shade to avoid the midday sun as they discuss their futures.

“Many people have been eager to go back since December, but there are also a lot waiting to hear what life is like for those who return before making a decision,” said Augustus Taylor from the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission.

Many refugees bear the scars of the abuse and violence they witnessed and suffered, and some are unsure if they will or can ever go back.

Mother-of-five Theodile Goun fixes her eyes on the ground as she explains how she was forced to strip naked by armed rebels loyal to Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara and threatened with rape in front of her children.

“My youngest girl is traumatised and often has flashbacks - screaming for her brother who died after being shot in the leg.”

While some of Bahn’s 5,000 refugees refer to the camp as a big family, tensions have flared between supporters of Ouattara and those loyal to former leader Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo’s refusal to accept Ouattara’s win in 2010 sparked the brief conflict that killed around 3,000 people, and refugee Richard Gouanoun said his status as a former member of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front party had made him a target in the camp.

He said he was arrested and detained for weeks after pro-Ouattara refugees accused him of training other refugees in the camp to carry out attacks in Ivory Coast.

“There is no way I can ever go back to my country, it would be too dangerous. But I don’t feel safe in the camp either, we are too close to Ivory Coast here,” 44-year-old Gouanoun said.

STRUGGLE TO ADAPT

While grateful for the shelter and security provided by the camp, many refugees have struggled to adapt to life in Bahn - frustrated by limited food rations and lack of opportunities.

“It isn’t easy being in a remote area, with no power, living in darkness - it is a far cry from Abidjan,” said Philochard Gonto, 30, who is impatient to return home to finish his degree in Ivory Coast’s main city.

Monthly rice rations have been cut by almost half as funding has dried up, and those picking up the sacks are subdued as they balance them on their heads or bundle them into wheelbarrows.

The UNHCR has provided training to teach skills such as soap making, hairdressing and tailoring, but only a few refugees have been given such opportunities, said mother-of-four Veh Elisee.

The lack of secondary education in Bahn camp means that children also have little to do, leading to a number of young girls falling pregnant, according to the 33-year old Ivorian.

“There are 12-year-olds having sex and children of their own because their is nothing to occupy them... what can you do if your child meets a boy who promises her a few dollars for sex?”

While education and work in Bahn may be limited, the UNHCR is giving grants and food rations to refugees heading home, who will also receive help to reclaim their land and go to school.

Strolling through the camp with his wife and children as the sun sinks behind the lush, green landscape, Lambert admits to worries about what might await his family in Ivory Coast.

But he smiles as he talks about the prospect of a better life back home for his children.

“For my wife and I, our time has passed, but what about the future of our children? We need to go home, so they can discover their country and culture - and succeed in life.”

Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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