Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Refugees sink deep into despair

BLOODY STRUGGLE Thousands of Liberians have been killed or displaced as President Charles Taylor continues his crackdown on rebels fighting his regime

AFP , KENEMA, LIBERIA

Two Liberian boys who recently fled their war-torn country watch a visiting UN official at Laine refugee camp in southeastern Guinea. About 400,000 refugees have fled Liberia to escape the fighting.

PHOTO: AP

Baindu Sheriff, a Liberian refugee, has seen her family virtually wiped out and she blames Liberian President Charles Taylor, who has launched a crackdown on rebels fighting his regime since 1999.

"I don't want to hear about President Taylor," spat the 26-year-old, speaking in a refugee camp in Tobanda, on the southeastern fringe of neighboring Sierra Leone.

"All my family was killed," she said, leaning on a post and recounting her horror story -- which is common to many Liberian refugees sheltered here.

Baindu fled Kailahun, a town on Liberia's northern tip, about a month ago after her husband, her relatives and two of her four children were "killed by government soldiers during an attack."

The Liberian offensive saw government troops regaining ground from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group, which holds a vast swathe of the north.

The LURD and a newly emergent group in southern Liberia hold between 40 and 60 percent of the country's territory, according to UN experts.

Taylor, who is under renewed UN sanctions including an arms embargo -- originally imposed for his perceived support for former Sierra Leonean rebels and alleged involvement in the contraband trade in "conflict diamonds" -- has been waging an uphill war against the insurgents.

Other Liberian refugees have been targeted by LURD rebels while trying to cross the Mano river on the frontier with Sierra Leone, humanitarian officials in Sierra Leone say.

Many were wounded and are receiving medical treatment in Tobanda, said John Shepherd, an American working for Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF).

"Everyone has a story to tell -- of fear, of flight, of one or another form of rights abuse," said Shepherd, who arrived in this refugee camp about six weeks ago.

This is his first visit to Africa and he is shocked by the plight of the refugees.

"It's disappointing to see how people are treated here," he said.

Shepherd deplored the fact that there was no hospital in the area to tend to those who were seriously wounded and stressed that despite a plethora of non-governmental organizations working in the region, there was little coordination between them.

Tobanda is a new camp housing some 4,500 Liberian refugees.

It is near the eastern town of Kenema, near Sierra Leone's diamond-rich area -- a no-go zone held by Sierra Leonean rebels during a decade-long brutal civil war which officially ended in January last year.

There are about 54,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone and thousands of others in other nearby countries -- to the great concern of the UN refugee agency.

Top UN refugee official Ruud Lubbers, currently touring troubled west Africa to address the plight of 400,000 refugees, has said he sees a glimmer of hope for peace in the region, except Liberia.

War has raged almost uninterrupted in Liberia since the early 1990s.

The latest bout of unrest, which broke out in 1999 -- two years after the end of a seven-year civil war that killed some 250,000 people -- has forced some 300,000 Liberians to flee to neighboring countries, stretching their already meagre resources.

Lubbers has said peace was vital in the region, adding: "The most important is to work towards a political solution in Liberia."

While in Liberia, Lubbers was snubbed by Taylor who canceled a meeting at the last minute. But that did not prevent Lubbers from sending a message to the president to open talks with rebels, and hinted that power-sharing could be a way out of the impasse.

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