5 April 2011: Berenger Berehoudougou, Plan's West Africa disaster risk management specialist, has just returned from Liberia, where he met thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire.
Plan is running emergency education and child protection programmes for Ivorian refugees in Nimba County, on the Liberia border.
Félicité arrived in Liberia completely naked, carrying 3 young children aged under 6. She'd walked nearly 150 miles for 2 weeks through the forest to escape the fighting in Cote d'Ivoire. On the way, she was attacked by bandits. They took everything – even her clothes.
She fled the violence in Abidjan on a Red Cross truck. From the western town of Daloa, she and her sister set off through the forest on foot, taking their 3 children with them. Her sister didn't make it to Liberia. She was too weak. She's buried in an unmarked grave, somewhere in the bush.
Now Félicité, in her early thirties, has her sister's 5-year-old daughter to care for, as well as her 1–year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. She has no idea where their fathers are. In the past month, she has seen several friends and relatives killed in front of her. She and the children are so distressed they can barely speak.
Unable to smile
All along the Liberia border in Nimba County, I met refugee children who couldn't smile and couldn't play. They were too shocked by all the violence they had seen. Most came from villages in the area near Duekoue in Cote d'Ivoire, the town where hundreds of people are said to have been killed.
Some told me that armed men came to their villages and attacked them. They saw neighbours killed by gunfire, just metres away from them. Those hiding in the bushes were hunted down and killed.
Escaping to Liberia was a long and horrific journey for many. They had to run from gunfire, they saw dead bodies along the route and they were forced to wade through rivers. Some arrived in Liberia, having not eaten anything for days. Others survived only on wild bananas.
It's mostly women and children crossing the border from Cote d'Ivoire. I saw only a few men. I don't know what happened to the men and boys. Some young people told me their brothers and fathers were fighting for one of the sides in the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire. But no one seems sure of what is happening back in their home country.
Safe spaces for children
These young people and their families need help to make sure they're safe. Children need safe spaces to just be children – to play and try to recover from their experiences.
Everyone in the local community needs to know about children's rights and how to protect young people from abuse. Children need to continue their education, even though they are living as refugees.
Many people who have fled Cote d'Ivoire are staying with relatives just over the Liberia border. Along the border area, many people are of the same ethnic group so there is no trouble with the newcomers. However, every day, as the fighting grows more intense, more and more people arrive in Liberia. They are traumatised - the children especially.
Félicité and her 3 young children are now clothed and receiving help from aid agencies. It's clear that the number of refugees like them, in need of urgent assistance, is likely to grow in the days ahead.