By Eva Gilliam
NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia, 14 Jan 2011 – Sanata, 9, was home alone when chaos erupted in her village on the western border of Côte d’Ivoire. Just days after the Ivoirian presidential elections in late November, tension between the country’s political parties was heating up and violence was feared as both candidates claimed victory.
|VIDEO: 12 January 2011 - UNICEF's Eva Gilliam reports on how villagers in Liberia's impoverished Nimba County are sharing their limited resources with refugees from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Watch in RealPlayer|
Sanata’s parents were working in the fields, and her brothers and sisters were out, when the neighbours decided to take her along as they fled across the Nior River into Liberia – a long day’s walk under a baking sun.
Now Sanata is one of nearly 13,000 children from Côte d’Ivoire who have been registered in Liberia by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees since the crisis began. Three-quarters of the Ivoirian refugee population in the country is composed of children and women.
A warm welcome
The refugees in Nimba County share common ethnicities and languages with their host communities. “I came here cause we are the same people,” says Odile Ngan Makese, a mother of five who came to Duoplay village, southern Nimba County, in early December.
|© UNICEF video|
|Between 25,000 and 30,000 refugees from Côte d’Ivoire have crossed the border into neighbouring Liberia since the contested Ivoirian presidential election in late November 2010.|
Although Ms. Makese is a stranger here, she and about 650 other refugees who arrived in Duoplay in recent months have received a warm welcome.
“We are caring for them. We can’t just let them go homeless,” says James Yormie, the village secretary. “But there are many problems that now we all have to face. With so many extra people, food is a serious problem, not to mention drinking water and toilets.”
No stranger to conflict
With so many extra mouths to feed, rice is scarce, and many refugees and hosts alike are left to forage in the forest for cassava if they don’t have enough crops to harvest. Each day, many refuges walk the 7 to 10 km back to their home villages across the border, looking for food to bring back.
|© UNICEF video|
|Water and sanitation resources are severely strained in border areas of Liberia that have seen an influx of Ivoirian refugees.|
Liberia is no stranger to conflict and the hardships it can cause. The country came out of a 14-year civil war itself in 2003, followed by successful democratic elections in 2005. Development, however, is slow.
“You know, we just came from war, and the agricultural situation here is somewhat lacking,” explains Sandi, a Nimba County supervisor with the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission. “There is a will to share with the refugees, and people are sharing a lot, but the stocks are running out. Basically, they are running out of food.”
‘Nothing to eat’
The Gblarlay village clinic is an hour from the Ivoirian border, in Nimba County. Today, the clinic will treat more than twice as many pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as it saw on a similar day in early November, before the influx of Ivoirian refugees.
|© UNICEF video|
|Refugees from Côte d’Ivoire are crowded in the home of host families and in school buildings in Liberia's Nimba County.|
“They come for exams, for medication,” says Roseline Farnglo, a certified midwife at the clinic. “We treat them for free because we have free health care in Liberia. But no matter what their medical problem, they are all saying the same thing – they’re hungry.”
When refugee Isabelle Mami went to the Gblarlay clinic, she thought she was just seven months pregnant. She found out she was already into her ninth month. This baby will be her sixth child, and she and her family are hungry. “There is nothing to eat,” she says.
Many refugee children suffer from malnutrition and are referred to feeding centres for treatment – but the centres are often far from the border towns.
Lack of safe water
Safe drinking water is also difficult for refugees and host families to come by. Many local well pumps are either broken or cannot sustain the increased use. Inadequate toilets are another major concern, as disease outbreaks could result from increased open-air defecation.
|© UNICEF video|
|An estimated 75 per cent of the Ivoirian refugees in Liberia are women and children.|
UNICEF has signed an agreement with national and international non-governmental organizations to expedite the emergency response on water and sanitation. In a number of villages, it has funded the building of latrines through a local partner, Equip Liberia.
In addition, UNICEF has distributed jerry cans and safe drinking water to sites in the affected area.
Schools hit hard
Education has been disrupted, as well. Where there are not enough host families, refugees are staying in schools or clinics.
In Duoplay, classes have been suspended for six weeks because the small village school is serving as a temporary shelter for over 50 women and children.
Even where local schools are operational, refugee children are missing out. Not only do they follow a different curriculum back home in Côte d’Ivoire; they also speak a different language at school and do not understand the English spoken in Liberian schools.
UNICEF’s central supply hub in Copenhagen has provided education materials to get schools running for the refugee children as soon as possible. UNCEF is also working with Ivoirian refugees who are teachers to coordinate classes and recreational activities.
‘They aren’t forgotten’
But the minimal infrastructure in the border villages remains one of the biggest challenges to humanitarian aid operations on the ground.
“It took us over three hours to get here from the warehouse, and we didn’t know if we would make if over the bridges or even some parts of the road,” says Robert Tolbert, a Protection Officer with the UN refugee agency. “But we have to come. We have to get here and let the people know they aren’t forgotten.”