|© UNICEF Bissau/2006/Nunes Correia|
|A volunteer from the Guinea-Bissau Red Cross registers some of the estimated 6,000 people who have been displaced by the armed conflict on the country’s border with Senegal.|
By Yolanda Nunes Correia
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, 24 March 2006 – “Children don’t care if there is armed conflict going on or not,” says Governor Arlindo Pires of Cacheu Region in Guinea-Bissau. “They are more interested in having their stomachs full of food and playing with their mates.”
Around 1,600 people have arrived in Cacheu this month, fleeing violence on the border with Senegal. Senegalese separatists, known as the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, have been waging a secessionist battle in southern Senegal for the past two decades. Army troops engaged with the rebels earlier this month after fighting spilled into northern Guinea-Bissau. More than 6,000 people reportedly have been forced from their homes.
“We are staying in the house of my neighbour’s cousin,” says Ana Indequi, one of the new arrivals in Cacheu. “There are more than 20 of us here, but I know that there are houses with many more people.”
Support for displaced families
Ana, who is seven months pregnant, is the mother of six children and is also responsible for her niece. She fled her village in São Domingos with the children and her neighbour Augusta, who has three of her own children under the age of five.
“I crossed the River Cacheu in a canoe and arrived in town on 21 March with my children and my friend’s family,” recalls Ana. “The day before, our husbands accompanied us to the mangroves. We had to stay there overnight. We fled our village, leaving behind our home, our domestic animals and our vegetable garden. We have children; we could not afford to take more risks. Our lives and our children’s lives are more important than our belongings.”
|© UNICEF Bissau/2006/Nunes Correia|
|Augusta holds her 10-month-old son while being registered in Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau. She and her three young children were forced to flee their village due to conflict between the army and Senegalese rebels.|
Ana and Augusta were among a large crowd being registered by volunteers from the local Red Cross. UNICEF, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations are providing support as well. UNICEF Bissau is mainly supplying non-food items such as water bladders, buckets, soap, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and iodized salt.
“We’re really happy with the support that we are getting,” says Ana. “We had a place to sleep, but not enough food or anything to sleep on. My children can now sleep on mats and eat more than once a day.”
Vulnerable children and women
Ana’s neighbour Augusta knows the future is uncertain. “They are saying that we must go back home, that the situation is calmer, but we don’t trust them,” she says. “We will go back home when it all really is over. Even if we go back now, the fields are mined. We will not be able to go to the cashew plantations. We don’t want to die or be handicapped. I am only 27 years old and I have three small children to bring up.”
Governor Pires is also worried about how long the armed conflict will continue. “Thanks to the rapid response from our partners, the immediate needs of the displaced are under control,” he says. “My major concern is the continuity of support to the displaced population if the present conflict persists for a longer period of time.”
With the support of local partners, distribution of humanitarian aid is ongoing but not yet in sufficient quantities. While thousands of people have fled their villages, an estimated 36,000 remain trapped by the violence in Varela, Suzana and São Domingos. UNICEF Bissau is concerned for children and women in the region, as they are typically the most vulnerable to harm in conflict situations.