Liberian officials at Bahn refugee camp - set up by the government and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to shelter Ivoirians fleeing violence - prefer residents to play down their political affiliations, and discourage the wearing of partisan T-shirts or the holding of political meetings.
But late on a Saturday afternoon, with little to do and much to discuss, Ivoirian refugees talked with anger and concern about their future, while ruefully reviewing the events of the past six months in their country just across the border.
"I don't want to be here, but what choice does a refugee have?" asked Sandigui Lacinje Traoré, who previously worked for the Ivoirian state media in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s administrative capital. "The war is not over yet as far as I am concerned," Traoré told IRIN.
Like many in the camp, and in surrounding villages, Traoré fled the Ivoirian border town of Toulepleu, the scene of heavy fighting, and ongoing insecurity. He talked angrily of water shortages and boredom in the camp, complaining: "I don't even have a radio to follow what is going on," but he was adamant that a return home was out of the question for now. “How do they expect me to go back when my house has been burned?”
Déhi Etienne, made no secret of his political allegiance. “I worked as the head of the youth movement in Bin-Houyé [in Dix-huit Montagnes region in the west], running information campaigns for the cause of President Laurent Gbagbo.”
As the fighting intensified in western Côte d’Ivoire and it became clear that the Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI) backing Alasanne Ouattara were gaining ground, Etienne said he had no option but to flee. “My life was in danger. The rebels were going after anyone identified as a Gbagbo supporter.”
Targeting has also been ethnically driven, as political affiliations largely fall along ethnic lines - with the Guéré in western Cote d’Ivoire largely supporting Laurent Gbagbo, and the Malinké and Burkinabé, backing President Ouattara.
Another refugee who presented himself as Ouyabi, said he had heard appeals from Ouattara and other senior figures in the government for refugees to return, but said he remained deeply sceptical. “From what I have heard, they are still stigmatizing and molesting Gbagbo supporters. If I am going to go back, I would want a clear signal from the UNHCR or the Red Cross that things were alright now.”
He continued: “From here, we have no way of knowing how the security situation is.”
Other refugees talked of the urgent need to restore a proper police and regular national army, warning of the terror wreaked by undisciplined militias.
In the meantime, Ouyabi said he would stay put with his wife, five children, niece and nephew. The camp authorities could make more of his skills, he added. “I used to organize sporting activities for the youth in the past. You could have football matches and other types of entertainment. There was talk of setting up a sports field here, but nothing has been done so far.”
While acknowledging the efforts made by relief organizations and local Liberian communities in providing food, shelter and basic sanitation, refugees in Bahn were quick to raise complaints about the quality of life: the cramped living conditions, a diet dominated by the highly unpopular bulgur wheat, irregular access to water, and a lack of schools for children.
“What you have here for the children are only schools in name,” Serge*, a teacher living with a Liberian host community further south in Biétuou, told IRIN. “Liberian children here go to school in the mornings, while we have to improvise in the evenings. Children who don’t go to school can go off the rails and become a danger for everyone.”
|I feel…that the fire has not really gone out|
Serge too, is in no hurry to return. He talked warily of the political situation in Côte d’Ivoire: “We can get our own information. I can cross the border by motorbike and go and visit my home region of Bin-Houyé, talk to people there. What I feel at the moment is that the fire has not really gone out.”
Loss of status
There is also anger and frustration at the loss of professional status. “I have submitted applications here, but if you do not speak English, you don’t stand a chance of finding work,” said Charles, another primary school teacher. Having worked in the Yopougon neighbourhood of Abidjan, Charles had been seconded to the west in February, leaving his family behind. “I can’t go back to Toulepleu, because the rebels attacked in the night and burned my house,” he explained. “I can’t go back to Yopougon because my house has been destroyed there as well.”
Charles said he was now going through the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to get back in contact with his family, currently based in Boauflé in central Côte d’Ivoire.
“We have to move on”
In Butuo, a few hours drive south of Bahn, a small group of Ivoirian refugees and Liberians chatted animatedly about the real prospects for peace, swapping anecdotes, discussing relations between the different ethnic groups on both sides of the border.
Further south, in Grand Geddeh County, most of the refugees are from the Guéré community, closely connected to the Krahn in Liberia. In Nimba, more of the refugees have come from the Yacouba, kinsmen of Liberia’s Gio population.
There have been concerns about the divisions in Côte d’Ivoire reopening old wounds in Liberia, where a 14-year civil war exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions. The involvement of Liberian mercenaries on both sides of the Ivoirian conflict has brought further complications.
Seuh Guéhigbeu, originally from Bin-Houyé, has been a refugee in Liberia for over six years, heading over the border after an earlier outbreak of violence. Now the recognized spokesman for refugees in Butuo, Guéhigbeu said Ivoirians had to adapt to new circumstances. “In the past, we lived in peace, but everything got poisoned by politics,” Guéhigbeu explained. “But everyone is equal here as refugees and we have to move on. There will be a minority who will want to resist, who will say ‘if it means becoming Liberian, I will become Liberian’, but it is just a minority. It is difficult to convince everyone.”
*not his real name