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NZEREKORE, 6 February (IRIN) - The population displacement caused by a four-month-old conflict in Cote d'Ivoire is putting to the test the absorption capacity of neighbouring Guinea, which already hosted some 92,536 refugees before September 2002, about 55 percent of them Liberian and 45 percent Sierra Leonean.
From 27 September 2002 to 27 January 2003, Guinea's Service National d'Action Humanitaire [National Humanitarian Action Service] and the Guinean Red Cross registered some 52,000 Guineans arrivals from Cote d'Ivoire, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported.
Humanitarian Envoy takes a closer look
Many of them arrived in the thickly wooded part of southern Guinea known as Guinee Forestiere, which includes the prefecture of Nzerekore, and which is where a mission led by the UN Humanitarian Envoy for the Crisis in Cote d'Ivoire, Carolyn McAskie, went on Tuesday to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation of the new refugees.
Accompanied by UN heads of agencies and Guinean government officials, McAskie first visited the Bossou transit centre, where UNHCR, WFP, the European Community's humanitarian office, ECHO, and other partners have built shelters, fed the displaced, provided latrines and installed other sanitary and health installations.
Bossou hosts more than one thousand people, most of them Liberians. Some of them told IRIN, as they queued up under a tent to receive a lunch of bulghur wheat and sauce provided by WFP, that the past few months had been a replay of the 1990s, when they were forced to leave their country of origin. "The same thing that made us flee Liberia is now making us run from Cote d'Ivoire", one of the refugees said.
In the 1990s, they had sought safety in Cote d'Ivoire as fighters from various factions battled it out in Liberia. Now Cote d'Ivoire itself was in turmoil, crippled by a rebel war that broke out in September in the north and shifted two months later to the west, where most of the Liberian refugees were concentrated. They were thus forced to move again, walking hundreds of kilometres through the dense bush to reach Guinea.
The refugees said they were grateful for the food and shelter they were receiving, happy to have been able to get to Guinea, and in no rush to return to Liberia or Cote d'Ivoire.
Roads complicate humanitarian response
After half an hour on dirt roads, the mission arrives at Thuo, 200 metres from the border with Liberia. Here, too, the arrivals are mostly Liberians - men and women, young and old - all displaced from Cote d'Ivoire. Thuo is one of two entry points from Liberia. The people here had to pass through a small portion of Liberian territory to enter Guinea.
Because Thuo is only a transit point, food is hard to come by and people sleep where they can, in the open air, under a makeshift shelter or in the home of a local villager. Most of them are anxious to be transported to Bossou, not only because of the food and shelter, but also because in Thuo the border is too near for them to feel safe.
A major source of concern for all the agencies is the condition of the roads which they use to deliver much-needed assistance. They are untarred and during the rainy season, they become muddy and unsuitable for vehicular traffic, which then takes much longer. Often operations have been delayed by the state of the roads, the agencies said. They urged McAskie to raise awareness of the problem, which occurs with every rainy season. Improved roads, they said, would facilitate activities and, more importantly, increase efficiency and ensure that the aid reaches those who need it on time.
Newcomers emerge from the bushes
As the convoy prepares to leave, a group of about 20 newcomers emerge from the bushes. Everyone is carrying something, from the children to the aged: a rolled-up mattress, bags of clothes, small buckets. They are welcomed with hugs and joined by the other hundreds of other displaced people in the village, who include Ivorians.
UN agencies, NGOs and Guinea's government have managed to handle the influx of displaced persons so far, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Guinea, Kingsley Amaning, tells McAskie. However, they would need assistance if the situation in Cote d'Ivoire were to increase the number of displaced people.
The situation of third-country nationals- citizens of countries other than Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia - was also a major issue. McAskie pledged to raise it with donors.
The UN humanitarian envoy arrived in Conakry on Monday after stops in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Liberia. She returned on Wednesday to Cote d'Ivoire and was expected to travel to Mali before returning to New York to brief the UN Security Council on her mission. She was accompanied by the head of OCHA's Regional Support Office for West Africa, Besida Tonwe.
The Ivorian crisis started on 19 September when a group of soldiers staged a mutiny - a coup attempt, according to the government - before retreating into the hinterland and seizing control of the northern parts of the country, which they still hold. An estimated one million people have been displaced by the conflict.
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