Côte d'Ivoire + 1 more

Eyewitness: Grateful in Gouela, Guinea

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After struggling on foot through dense rain forest, thousands of people displaced by Cote d'Ivoire's instability have found shelter in Guinea. WFP reports officer April Thompson witnesses their arrival at Gouela, a refugee transit centre on the border.
Gouela, Feb 26 - At a small, quiet town on Guinea's border with Cote d'Ivoire, the afternoon breeze carries the smell of wood burning under blackened cauldrons.

A group of weary travellers are lining up to take their share from a mountain of fluffy cornmeal. Among them, a bright-eyed boy feeds his younger sister. Her sloppy grin is orange with sauce, while another toddler rests on a straw mat licking his spoon clean.

The children walked four days with their father, 53-year-old Yapi Messmin, to reach the refugee transit centre at Gouela. Now, they are eating their first hot meal in days.

Like hundreds of other Ivorians, Guineans and Liberians, when rebel gunfire erupted across Cote d'Ivoire, the Messmin family had no time to gather clothes, money or food.

Wary of staying in an increasingly unstable country, they abandoned their homes and jobs and started the long trek to Guinea and an uncertain future.

VOLATILE

Most walked several days through the dense forest that characterises this region, arriving at one of Africa's most volatile borders with throbbing feet and empty stomachs.

"Coming here made a big difference to us," said Messmin. "Here we eat enough and live peacefully."

Messmin made the trip twice, once alone, then returning home to fetch his children, knowing they would be safe from violence and hunger at Gouela.

Since fresh fighting broke out between insurgents and government troops last September, Cote d'Ivoire has experienced massive population displacement -- both internally and into neighbouring countries.

STAPLE DIET

In total, some 33,000 people like Messmin have received corn, beans, salt and sugar - the main staples of WFP's emergency food aid administered through the agency's N'Zérékoré office.

The meals are prepared by the Red Cross Movement at Gouela, Lola, and Senko as well as the Organisation Catholique pour la Promotion Humaine at Bossou - all transit centers for people escaping from Cote d'Ivoire.

With the help of the Red Cross, WFP has also supplied these border entry-points with six metric tons of high-calorie, vitamin-enriched biscuits. They are targeted at those refugees and IDPs considered most at risk of hunger and malnutrition -- pregnant women and elderly people.

BEYOND GOUELA

But the WFP Guinea pipeline stretches beyond Gouela.

After being transferred to permanent camps at Lainé and Nonah, refugees are given a monthly basket of dried food. Here, they also receive cooking supplies from the UN's High Commission for Refugees.

To date, WFP has delivered 125 tonnes of these dry rations to 6,000 Liberian and Ivorian refugees. This kind of food aid provides the sustenance people require to begin rebuilding their lives.

WFP is also launching school feeding programmes in the Lola and Beyla districts, where locals are struggling to cope with the seemingly never-ending influx. In this poverty-stricken area, the sudden transit of people fleeing Cote d'Ivoire is threatening livelihoods.

Soon the people passing through Gouela will be settling into new homes at the permanent camps. But it's their first meals which are renewing their strength to make the next leg of their journey.

"If there were no food, we wouldn't be able to continue our journey," says Liberian refugee Gertrude Miah.

Guinea's triple emergency: Transport, Space, Protection:

Transport:

Lack of transportation is severely limiting Guinea's capacity for coping with the sudden population influx from Cote d'Ivoire

Returning Guinean citizens and Liberian / Ivorian refugees trying to go home are often stuck in transit centres for days, even weeks

Space:

Guinea's refugee camps are stretched to the limit

To keep pace with the continuing arrival of IDPs and refugees, existing camps need to be expanded or new reception and transit centres designated

Protection:

people traversing Guinea en route to their countries of origin can miss out on humanitarian assistance and are exposed to abuse

Cote d'Ivoire Crisis: WFP Guinea responds

Immediately after Cote d'Ivoire's civil conflict broke out in September 2002, there was a sudden influx of refugees and IDPs along Guinea's southern border

WFP Guinea used its N'Zerekore sub-office to provide six metric tons of hi-energy biscuits at 12 border entry points

The agency also handed out hot meals to 33,011 people at four transit centres - Lola, Gouela, Senko and Bossou

To help southern Guinea's border region absorb the new arrivals, WFP is also launching an emergency school feeding programme covering all primary schools in the area - equivalent to 33,400 pupils

But WFP Guinea's food stocks are running out - unless new funding is confirmed by the end of March, the agency will have to start rationing its food aid

WFP Contact Information

For more information on WFP operations in Cote d'Ivoire, contact:

Gemmo Lodesani
Cote d'Ivoire Emergency Coordinator
Tel. +225-20 30 28 00

Ramin Rafirasme
Public Affairs Officer
WFP West Africa
Tel. +221-849 6500 ext. 4990