With fear still rife among the Ivoirian refugees remaining in eastern Liberia, NGO the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which is managing refugee camps in Grand Gedeh County, is working to ensure refugee camps are apolitical and weapon-free.
“This cannot become a political environment… it is the only way to make sure people are safe,” said Steve Anyia, NRC’s manager of Solo refugee camp, 25km from Zwedru, in Grand Gedeh County, eastern Liberia. Several of the refugees milling around Solo camp wore Gbagbo victory T-shirts. “I do not like these T-shirts,” Anyia said angrily as he accompanied IRIN through the camp.
The wearing of these T-shirts was banned by the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission at the opening of PTP camp [on the former site of the Prime Timber Company], the latest to be opened in Grand Gedeh on 1 September.
But Anyia recognizes that creating a neutral, apolitical zone is tough when so many refugees remain angry. Most of the Ivoirians IRIN spoke to in Solo came from parts of western Côte d’Ivoire, including Toulépleu, Guiglo and Bloléquin, where the Guéré ethnic group - known as the Krahn in Liberia - were allegedly targeted by pro-Ouattara militia due to their real or imputed support for ex-President Gbagbo.
In June, a number of “threat letters” circulated in Solo camp, talking of revenge and reprisals. The Liberian police were called in to make arrests, easing tensions slightly, according to Anyia. The police have regularly monitored developments since the letters were issued. Anyia asks officers to hide their arms or leave them behind before entering: “We will have no arms in this camp,” he told IRIN.
Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
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NRC has appointed dozens of Ivoirians into responsible roles - coordinating food and water distributions, managing cleaning committees - partly to give them ownership over the running of Solo camp and partly to implicate them in keeping it safe.
Refugees IRIN spoke to in Solo said they felt safer in a camp than in a village. “We want to be further from the border so we are less likely to meet more trouble. We do not want to see more violence,” a man, who gave his name only as Celestine, from Guiglo, told IRIN. He said he had seen no indication of arms in the camp.
Geoffrey Carliez, a UN Refugee Agency field officer, told IRIN political tension in the camps is not a big issue.
UN operations in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire (UNMIL and UNOCI) are working with the Ivoirian and Liberian government security agencies, including the Liberian National Police and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) to shore up border security in a bid to stop arms being transported to and from Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, and to try to ensure refugees’ safe passage.
UNMIL has significantly increased its patrols along the 700km-long border, including by using air patrols in inaccessible areas; while the governments of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire alongside UNMIL and UNOCI, launched a joint cross-border strategy in mid-August.
Surveillance has worked in some cases. Intelligence-gathering led BIN to seize large arms caches in River Gee, Maryland, Grand Gedeh and Nimba counties in early August, including machine guns, rockets, and assault rifles.
Prior to that, in June some 36 alleged Ivoirian mercenaries were arrested by the Liberian police’s Emergency Response Unit and BIN in River Gee County in a process supported by the UN Police, according to Yasmina Bouziene, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL). These men are now being held in a correctional facility in Zwedru, waiting for their cases to be transferred to one of the country’s 16 judicial courts, according to the UN.
However, “the difficulty in monitoring all border areas all the time should be appreciated,” said Bouziene. Given the porous border, and the constant movement of refugees between villages, camps and across the border, monitoring precisely who or what is crossing back and forth is nearly impossible, an experienced aid worker in Zwedru, told IRIN.