Tag Archives: Liberia

Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire keeps Liberians hungry

Liberians living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire have encountered persistent hardships since crossings were closed in June 2012. Travis Lupick photo.

Joseph Tahyor recalled one day last August when he and some 600 other residents of B’hai Jozon were asked to leave their homes. Men, women, and children, set out first-thing in the morning, and travelled from the Liberian side of the border with Côte d’Ivoire to the relative-safety of Toe Town, some 10 kilometers east.

“They all walked on foot,” Tahyor recounted. “We left for three days before we came back here….when it was no-longer serious fighting.”

Tahyor said that soldiers with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) facilitated the move, and that everything went smoothly enough. But he noted that roughly a quarter of those who left have yet to return to B’hai, afraid of another outbreak of violence related to ongoing unrest in Côte d’Ivoire.

Security has returned to the area, residents agreed. But life is more difficult than it was before. It’s the conflict’s impact on trade that is felt most acutely. Even basic staples have become scarce, residents reported. “We have children who are suffering,” one woman complained. “No food.”

The situation is the same in many villages in Liberia’s eastern border region. The Government has stated that it is aware of such complaints. But most crossings have remained closed for more than four months now, since a June 8 attack killed seven UN Peacekeepers and eight civilians.

In November 2010, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo lost a democratic election but refused to concede defeat. In the ensuing months, clashes between Gbagbo supporters and those of the new President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, left more than 1,500 people dead. Gbagbo was eventually captured and sent to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But sporadic violence has continued, with most attacks occurring in Côte d’Ivoire’s east.

On June 9, 2012, the Government of Liberia launched Operation Restore Hope, which aims to secure the porous border that runs for hundreds of kilometers through dense forest. People in B’hai said that they feel safer since the deployment of soldiers to the area. But they also unanimously complained of economic hardships that have come with the military’s deployment.

Women living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire are bearing the brunt of challenges faced by Liberian's affected by the conflict next door. Travis Lupick photo.

Joanna Zeah, a business woman and mother of six, explained that B’hai residents’ primary trading partners were towns in Côte d’Ivoire. When the AFL arrived, they sealed the border, which has remained closed ever since. Links to suppliers and markets were severed.

“From Ivory Coast, we could get food,” Zeah said. “But the border is closed. When they open the border, then our children can eat.”

Grace David, another merchant, said that the situation has forced the town’s women to search for food in the surrounding forest.

“We go in the bush but it is scary,” she added. “You can be in there and people can come and no one will know. Even to be there for just one hour’s time is scary. If something will happen to you, who will know? Nobody.”

The economic situation in B’hai Jozon is just one of many ways that the low-grade conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is spilling over into Liberia, noted Peter Solo, superintendent for Grand Gedeh, one of four Liberian counties that border Côte d’Ivoire.

In the county capital of Zwedru, Solo described how repeated influxes of Ivorian refugees have become a preoccupation for social service providers previously aiding Liberian communities in need. At the same time, he continued, the economic impact caused by the closure of the border means such assistance is in greater demand.

“We think the government in Côte d’Ivoire needs to fast track a sincere reconciliation process there,” Solo said. “We would greatly benefit from that.”

At B’hai’s closed border crossing, residents emphasized that they were grateful for the improved level of security. But everybody stressed the need for economic assistance, and said that fears of further attacks remain.

“It is two times that this has happened,” said Neeinwley Cooper, vice principal for B’hai-Nicko Elementary and Junior High School. He recounted a second incident, when villagers had to run away in the night.

“The rebels started shooting randomly, heavy guns. And so the whole town left,” he said. “Maybe we will have to run away again. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.”

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False promises of Liberian gold

Out of sight in western Liberia's thick forests, gold mines attract disaffected youth but deliver few benefits. Travis Lupick photo.

Gbessey Musa is a long way from home. Three years ago, he left Sierra Leone in search of a job that could provide for his family. Chasing rumours of wealth, the young man eventually found himself at a gold mine deep in the forest of western Liberia. There, he recounted a story of false promises and disappointment.

“I’m looking for money,” he said. “This work is by luck; sometimes you get the gold, sometimes you don’t.”

Unable to find any sort of meaningful employment in Freetown, the plan, Musa continued, was to try mining in Liberia, which he heard could quickly make a person rich. Three years later, Musa conceded that he’s yet to send a penny back to his wife and four children. He explained that he makes enough to pay for food and rent a small room. But that’s it. There’s never been anything extra to send to his family. Even a ticket home has remained beyond his reach.

Travis Lupick photo.

Some two dozen men working the mine with Musa told similar stories. They earn enough to survive and work another day. But seldom anything more. And just like Musa, many travelled great distances – most, from Monrovia, some 160 kilometers southeast – and now find themselves unable to pay for transport home.

“We live at the mercy of the dirt,” Musa concluded. “Digging a pit to get our daily bread.”

In nearby Henry Town, community leaders were equally disenchanted. They said that their hope was for the area’s gold mines to bring paved roads and social services. But development hasn’t come. Instead, commodity prices have soared and petty crime has risen to overwhelm the city’s small police force. Meanwhile, adolescent males are leaving school in favour of easy money in the mines while many young women are similarly offering their bodies to meet to a booming demand for prostitutes fueled by a transient labour force.

Kafa Manjo, a chief for the Quinika people, complained that the money made in the mines around Henry Town seldom finds its way to the community. The majority of miners’ earnings are sent back to the men’s families in Monrovia. And what little that does trickle into the local economy largely goes to vices such as alcohol and prostitution.

“Most of the boys are not putting their money to use,” Manjo said. “All they do is misbehave with it.”

Travis Lupick photo.

He explained that because most of the young men working the mines often only reside in Henry Town for a short time (mining in the area is seasonal, ending with the onset of annual rains) they feel few ties to the community in which they stay.

“The money they get does not go to our roads and our clinics are not fixed,” Manjo continued. “They take the money to Monrovia.”

In the county capital of Bopolu, officials conceded that the mines are mismanaged and a problem.

Superintendent Allen Gbowee argued that youths’ eagerness to work in the mines is a legacy of the past. “The war and then NGOs have made young people accustomed to making quick money,” he said. “So many look at mining as the best option for them.”

Gbowee noted that there are laws designed to keep young people out of the labour force and in school. He also emphasized that the government should be receiving revenue via taxation of mineral resources extracted from the mines. The challenges are enforcement and capacity.

“How can we solve these problems?” she wondered aloud.

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Going home: The first plane out of Budum buram

Martin stands in cue outside Budum buram's counselling office

After more than two decades in Ghana, some Liberian refugees will soon board planes bound for home.

This first step in repatriation comes after the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) reported the West African nation’s political climate has stabilized and placed a time-line on the status of Liberians abroad. In Ghana, most of these people live outside Kasoa, near Accra, in a camp called Budum buram. Most are excited by the news but not all are planning to leave.

Martin is a forty-eight year old father of two. He and his wife escaped Liberia after armed men besieged and burned his parent’s house. His forearms are still marked with a series of small circular scars. “I got them that day. They are cigarette burns,” he says, while rubbing the bubbled marks dotting his skin. He says, his family was targeted at the outset of the chaos. “My father was a high-ranking security force official. I escaped many I knew didn’t.” He has established roots in the camp and visited Liberia only once. He says he has no interest in returning, “I’ve been away too long. My children were born here and we are staying.”

Others have a more hopeful outlook on life after Budum buram. “This place is no good for children,” says Emmanuel, while cradling a toddler in his arms. He was a boy when he, his mother and older sister came to the camp. “We were some of the first here. My son has never seen his home. Now that there is peace I will show him.”

In 1989, the first asylum seekers arrived at Budum buram. Their country decimated by military coups, tribal violence and the sparks of a ruinous civil war. Originally, the area was a temporary shelter and the people were slated for re-location. However, the mass and speed of migration made finding sufficient space nearly impossible.

Charles assists in the daily operation of the camp. He says the location has always been contentious. “If you look at Kenya they (refugees) are nowhere near the Capital. Here, there are too many people in a small-small area. It’s no good for security.”

Now, the UNHCR is preparing to close the camp and is counseling residents on the options available. The first 45 take off on Friday Feb. 24, followed by the same number on Sunday. A plan for all must be in place before their refugee status expires June 30.

Fighting for survival: Liberia’s ex-combatants in Cote d’Ivoire

Gabriel Swen, 25, fought in wars in Liberia and neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. After disarming in 1997, poverty drove him back to fighting

Once, Gabriel Swen was a regional warrior.

He fought in his country, Liberia, for years, first picking up a gun at the age of 7 after losing his family in the West African nation’s 14-year civil war. He handed in his weapons to the UN in 1997 in exchange for some training in shoe repair, but after failing to find a means of survival without a gun, he took up fighting again the following year.

In 2001, Swen was part of a mercenary army that crossed Liberia’s eastern border to francophone Cote d’Ivoire following a January coup attempt on the then-newly elected president Laurent Gbagbo. Swen fought not for pay, but for the spoils of war, until he was seriously wounded in a car crash and returned to Liberia.

The phenomenon of regional warriors in West Africa is rearing its head again today, as Cote d’Ivoire hovers on the brink of civil war.

Thousands of combatants roam this fragile region from conflict to conflict, fighting as a means to survive in some of the poorest nations on earth, where peace without proper reintegration has brought not happiness but rather a life of idle deprivation for some former fighters, many of whom were coerced to take up arms as children.

According to numerous reports, Cote d’Ivoire’s death squads are linked to the security forces of Gbagbo, who is refusing to cede power to the internationally recognized winner of the country’s November 2010 election, Alassane Ouattara.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to “target certain groups in the population” during the current crisis that has left more than 200 dead.

The risk to regional stability posed by disenchanted and impoverished former fighters in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and surrounding countries is widely recognized by the United Nations and international bodies, as well as national governments.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) noted as recently as June 2010 its concern about an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Liberian fighters in western Cote d’Ivoire.

At various times since the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, UNMIL has responded to reports of ex-combatants congregating along the borders with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in hopes of getting picked up by a commander heading to conflicts elsewhere.

Over the last six weeks, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has repeatedly called on her country’s ex-combatants not to get involved in violence next door.

But the failure to provide the tens of thousands of ex-combatants throughout the region with viable alternative livelihoods continues to fuel regional instability and mercenary activity.

Nya D. Twayen Jr., assistant minister for youth services with the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sport, calls the country’s thousands of street youths, many of whom are ex-combatants, the greatest threat to stability in the fragile post-war country.

“They are vulnerable. You give them five dollars and give them an AK-47 and say shoot… they’d shoot,” says Twayen. “As long as a portion of them still remain depressed and down and wayward, they will wage war on others.”

In a 2005 report dubbed “Youth, Poverty and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa’s Regional Warriors,” Human Rights Watch wrote that regional warriors identified poverty and hopelessness as motivators for them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts.

“They described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters,” the report reads.

“Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival.”

Swen retired from a decade of fighting before he was 18 years old. Now repairing shoes on the streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Swen says he wouldn’t want to go back to war. But eight years of peace haven’t got him anywhere. He still has no job and can’t afford to eat most days; he says he’s haunted by memories and holds little hope for the future.

“I need help to stop thinking,” he says. “I think about the war that happened, I feel bad.”

If a truck rolled up and offered him a couple bucks and some food to return to a frontline somewhere, he says with a shrug, he might go.

“The future? I do not have no hope for it.”