The UN refugee agency UNCHR began transporting Liberian refugees back to Lofa county in Northwestern Liberia on Monday, a fertile region stripped of its population by heavy fighting during the country's 14-year civil war.
“The voluntary repatriation of refugees from Guinea into Lofa started today [Monday] with the first convoy of 140 returnees. They safely arrived in Voinjama and this is just the beginning of our organised voluntary repatriation in that county,” Francesca Fontanini, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Liberia told IRIN.
According to an official UN map of displaced persons more than 89,000 of the 350,000 Liberian refugees who fled abroad during the 1989-2003 conflict are from Lofa County. Most of them trekked into Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Lofa County, once known as the breadbasket of Liberia, also accounts for more than 95,000 of the 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) registered nationally.
The heavily forested district, which until recently was a stronghold of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement, was finally declared safe for the return of IDPs and refugees by the Liberian government and the United Nations at the end of January.
Lofa was devasted by fighting between 1999 and 2003 during the latter phase of the civil war. Much of its basic infrastructure - including schools, clinics and private homes - was destroyed by bombardment and systematic looting.
But Fontanini told IRIN on Monday that UNHCR had already started work to repair the damage.
“We have rehabilitated seven schools and 10 clinics all over Lofa that will be used by the returnees”, she said.
Although the UNHCR's assisted resettlement programme in Lofa county has only just begun, refugees have been returning there spontaneously in their thousands over several months, especially since the disarmament of 5,000 LURD fighters in the county was completed in November.
Aid workers estimate that some 75,000 persons - both IDPs and refugees - have returned voluntarily to the county since mid-2004.
The UNHCR said in a statement last week that across Liberia as a whole some 100,000 refugees had returned to their homes without their assistance.
UNHCR aims to assist more than 100,000 more refugees to return home from camps across West Africa this year, but if they want to vote in elections for a new president and parliament on 11 October, they need to move fast.
Liberia’s elections commission said last week that only those who come home before the close of a nation-wide voter registration exercise on May 21, would be allowed to vote.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions