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There’s an African proverb that reads: “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” It’s an adage that rings all too clear in Liberia after nearly 15 years of civil war.
While leading a coup d'état in 1980, Samuel Doe murdered and subsequently replaced Liberia's president, William R. Tolbert. Doe reigned for 10 years until the notorious Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attacked Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989. Civil war ensued for the next 14 years.
The Buduburam refugee settlement, located an hour outside Ghana's capital, Accra, is home to some 35,000 Liberian refugees, a number that fluctuates daily as refugees constantly come and go. Some of Buduburam's inhabitants have been there for up to 18 years, while others have just arrived, but all have one thing in common: they are seeking asylum.
In the 14 years of war in Liberia, more than 200,000 people were slain, some 800,000 internally displaced, and an estimated 350,000 Liberians fled their country. Liberia's infrastructure, education, health system and economy crumbled.
Liberia has been relatively peaceful since the signing of the August 2003 Peace Agreement in Accra, moving the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to launch a voluntary repatriation program in October 2004; the program came to a conclusion on June 30 of last year.
Under the UNHCR, registered repatriates were transported from their country of exile to Liberia via ship or air. Once in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, the UNHCR gave each repatriate $5 US and four months' ration of wheat, blankets and basic cooking utensils.
According to the UNHCR, 6,320 Liberian refugees from Ghana and over 110,000 people from other West African countries have passed through the UNHCR's repatriation program. This has still left an estimated 72,000 Liberian refugees in West Africa. Ghana is currently home to one third of those refugees, totalling some 36,000 people.
The UNHCR has been pressuring the Ghanaian government to reintegrate remaining refugees into Ghanaian society where they are currently not allowed to work legally. Starting from February 19, 2008, however, hundreds of Liberian refugee women began protesting the UNHCR’s stance. Protesters are demanding resettlement in a third country-–namely Europe or North America-–or $1000 US for each refugee to travel back home.
“Basically the refugees want an increase package from the UN in order to return to Liberia, or to be resettled in a third country of asylum,” says Leon Toe, 26, a resident of Buduburam and a Liberian journalist. “They want the UNHCR and the governments of Liberia and Ghana to either resettle refugees or take them back to Liberia and give them money. More than five dollars to restart their lives,” says Toe.
Many of the residents insist that five dollars and some grain simply will not be enough to sustain them while rebuilding their homes and lives.
“The camp is really heating up,” says Joseph Keanmue Tokpah, a resident of Buduburam for the past eight years. “The women even sleep on the field where the repatriation is done [in protest].”
“There is tension in the air. There is fear because most people fear that anytime the military can take action,” says Toe.
Ryan Bolton was living and reporting at the Liberian refugee camp from the end of July until September with Journalists for Human Rights.
Shortly before this article was published, the author received an email from colleague Leon Toe, a Liberian journalist living in the camps, who was also interviewed in the article.
"Before dawn Monday morning [Mar. 17] heavily armed police raided the camp and took more than 700 women and children to an unknown camp in the east of Ghana. The police took the women and children in about eight buses.
"I pray that things do not get out of hand, or we will all be dead and the world will only condemn the act.
"We are all now living in fear since the Interior Minister ordered the police to arrest our mothers, sisters, wives, and kids, because we do not know what will happen to us males next."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.