Sat, Jul 26, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Liberian refugee camps overflowing

FLEEING VIOLENCE Around a fifth of the residents of the capital Monrovia have sought refuge in camps that are perilously lacking in supplies of food and water


Jallah Lone, Liberia's senior traditional chief, is not at all happy living with some 12,000 people crammed into a camp in the world's largest rubber plantation outside the war-devastated capital Monrovia.

Lone, who says he is 89, easily looks his age. He complains that his days at the Harbel Multilateral Displaced Camp in the middle of the Firestone rubber plantation are the worst in his life.

"There have been other wars before but this is the first time I have left home," he said, surrounded by some of the 87 members of his family who fled their homes for the camp, nearly 50km outside Monrovia.

"I'm not supposed to be here," said the wizened patriarch -- conspicuous in a flowing richly embroidered white African caftan and black and gold cap -- amid a sea of rags and soiled clothes.

Lone's pre-eminent position as chairman of the council of "paramount chiefs," affords him some unthinkable luxuries that are unavailable to others who have been living here since last month when rebels besieged the Liberian capital.

"The government give me some rice from time to time but it is not enough," he said.

"I am not well, my head hurts, I have pressure and I feel weak," said Lone, who doubles as the head of the "Zo," traditional healers who practice witchcraft.

The camp is in a school in the sprawling plantation.

James Momoh, the local Red Cross relief officer at the camp, said it opened early last month and originally housed 6,241 people until a couple days back.

"The influx began on Wednesday," he said. "Now we have close to an additional 6,000 people and more are pouring in. We're packed to capacity, we're now sending the others to another camp further ahead."

An estimated 200,000 people -- one out of five in Monrovia -- have been displaced by the fighting between President Charles Taylor's forces and the rebels of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, aid agencies say.

All the inmates have to fend for themselves. Most go to the nearby jungle to pick berries, mushrooms or palmnuts or edible leaves. They crack the palmnuts and eat the soft interior for sustenance.

"We know eating palmnuts causes worms," said Stephen Parker, the chairman of the camp, shivering with malaria.

"Those who are lucky get contracts [part time jobs] with the people in the Firestone factory washing dishes, washing clothes or sweeping. They get small money and buy food," he said.

There is only one toilet. So everybody goes to the surrounding forest.

"The bush around is full of poo poo," said Henry Nyah, who arrived in the camp yesterday after an arduous three-day trek from Monrovia with his wife and children.

The inmates complain they are hungry and that humanitarian organizations are not doing enough.

Parker said the British aid organization Merlin mosquito-proofed the schoolrooms but stressed that malaria was rampant and cholera was rearing its head.

There is only one hand pump in the complex.

"If the fighting does not stop immediately, we will witness one of the worst humanitarian tragedies in the region," Marc Destanne de Bernis, the UN top administrator for Liberia has warned.

"Food and water supplies have become scarce, there is widespread malnutrition and tens of thousands of people do not have access to potable water," he said, speaking about the besieged capital city.

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