On Monday, 147 Liberian refugees in Tabou, south-western Côte d'Ivoire, were taken by mini-bus to Prollo town near the Cavaly River, which separates Côte d'Ivoire from Liberia. From there, they crossed the river on boats and arrived back in Liberia, where they were transferred to a transit centre in Mariland county. They joined 111 others who returned on Sunday and 34 on Friday, when the emergency repatriation started. The operation was put on hold on Saturday.
An additional 3,000 Liberian refugees have registered to go home and more are coming forward each day. Now that the operation has gotten off the ground, the UN refugee agency is increasing the number of daily returns, but not without some initial bumps.
The repatriation got off to a stormy start on Friday when rough seas prevented two motorised boats hired in Tabou from reaching Prollo via a short stretch of the Atlantic Ocean.
Upon seeing an empty river on Friday, UNHCR emergency co-ordinator Jacques Franquin sighed, "It took a lot of negotiations with local chiefs. The locals even claimed that the river was cursed in order to prevent the return movement. It took money to hire the boats, and it took our own hard work to get all 85 refugees here on time. But we lacked the luck to get everything at the right time at the right place."
Because of the alleged spell, the local population had removed their own canoes from the river. UNHCR staff spent the next hour negotiating with local chiefs to release five of their own canoes for the waiting refugees.
After a demonstration on the use of life jackets, 34 Liberians - with the youngest children wrapped in over-sized life jackets - boarded the canoes and rowed homewards.
But the river's current was strong, and as the canoes rocked back and forth, babies cried and mothers looked distressed. "That's it!" said UNHCR's Franquin when the boats returned after transporting the first group home. "These boats seem too unstable to me. I'd rather be safe than sorry. We'll call the whole thing off and do it again tomorrow with the right boats."
That night UNHCR returned to Tabou with 51 refugees and picked up another 25 terrified Liberians waiting by the road beside a checkpoint they had been barred from crossing. The local youth in Tabou, who had been causing problems at the checkpoints, were not happy to see the returning refugees. "The Liberians are coming back," they said. "Tell them to stay away and never come back again."
The situation in Tabou has been tense since rebels captured the nearby town of Grabo two weeks ago. The fighting sent terrified Liberian refugees fleeing in the area, but locals have accused them of involvement with the rebels and refused to let them leave.
Some 1,000 of the displaced refugees sought refuge in the UNHCR/CARITAS compound in Tabou. The refugee agency is planning to transfer them to an out-of-use transit centre that can accommodate 500 persons once its facilities have been upgraded.
"We are concerned about the hygiene conditions in the UNHCR compound, where many people are camping without proper facilities," said Franquin. "At least in the transit centre, they will be able to use the basic facilities."
Among those on the waiting list to go home is Nyanforu Saylu, who fled Mariland county in Liberia for Côte d'Ivoire 12 years ago. His eight-year-old daughter, Patience, was born in exile and has never known her homeland.
"I built myself a house in Menike, southern Côte d'Ivoire, and became a farmer, cultivating cassava and rice," said the 55-year-old Liberian refugee. "I speak French and I made friends, but now my friends have become my enemies. I have to go. Now I am happy to go home."
Saylu's family left Menike a week ago when their neighbours told them to go. The refugee sighed, "My family consists of four women and me, an old man. But still, people told us we were a threat!"
Prevented from going home to Liberia - "they said we should stay here to be watched so we would not go with the rebels" - Saylu decided to go to UNHCR's office, where "people said we would be safe".
The current return movement is a breakthrough in a deadlock UNHCR has been facing for weeks over the transfer of Liberian refugees in western Côte d'Ivoire to safer sites. But more remains to be done.
"We have tried and are still trying to find safe sites within Côte d'Ivoire for those refugees who do not want to go back to Liberia, but the opposition of the local population is just enormous," said UNHCR's Franquin. "People are not willing to make a distinction between aggressive rebels and vulnerable refugees anymore. The local population seems to forget that their own people are refugees in Liberia. It is very sad."
UNHCR estimates that there are still about 40,000 Liberian refugees in western Côte d'Ivoire. The agency is planning to start an awareness campaign across the country to try and defuse tensions between the local population and the Liberian refugees. This campaign will include radio and talk shows as well as posters and speeches by famous Ivorian personalities.