By Edward Bally
MAN, Côte d’Ivoire, 4 May 2011 – Reine Kpea Zehe, her husband and sister-in-law pack two heavy bags filled with cooking pans and clothes on to a small barge on the Liberian side of River Nuon, a 50-metre wide border with Côte d’Ivoire.
Along with four other Ivorians, the family are about to cross back into their home country. It’s the second trip across the river Ms. Kpea Zehe has made in a week. This time it’s been to gather remaining belongings and pass on the news to fellow refugees that the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is finally over.
It’s very different from the tense moment four months ago when they were forced to flee their village of Binhouye in the middle of the night.
“We heard gunfire near our house, so we took what we could with us, took our son and fled towards Liberia,” she recalls. They spent three months in a refugee camp on the Liberian border. Without access to safe water, conditions were difficult for her one-year-old son.
Ms. Kpea Zehe first returned to her village in Côte d’Ivoire two weeks ago. Most of the homes, including hers, had been looted and the grain store lay empty.
Life won’t be easy in the coming weeks, but she is just happy the conflict is largely over. “I am relieved to be back home,” she says. “Even though we have nothing to eat, we can finally start to get our lives back where we left them.”
Confronting a new reality
An estimated 165,000 Ivorians fled their country after violence in the aftermath of last November’s disputed presidential election. Many lost contact with family members. Other had family or friends die in the conflict.
Numerous villages were burned down. According to the Red Cross, around 1,000 people were killed in the last six months.
All the population of the village of Koaro, a couple kilometres from the Liberian border, fled during the crisis. Half have now returned, with more streaming back every day. Most houses are still standing, but everyone remains shocked by the experience.
Rose Van, 26, grows cocoa and coffee in the village. When she fled, she was eight months pregnant. She gave birth to a girl in a refugee camp in Liberia. Her daughter has yet to receive vital early healthcare. “My child hasn’t received any vaccines so far,” she says.
The political deadlock has paralyzed healthcare services in Côte d’Ivoire. UNICEF has launched a vaccination campaign against measles in the border region for children who missed their scheduled vaccinations.
Ms. Van returned to home with her youngest daughter five days ago. Her house had been looted. Gone were almost all her belongings – her mattress, mosquito net and, most importantly, food.
Until she can get back on her feet, she has left her other three children with family in Liberia.
Displaced and hungry
The biggest challenge for humanitarian organizations now is to help displaced people like Ms. Van to return safely and rebuild their lives in Côte d’Ivoire.
As in most crises, children are having to bear an enormous weight. Many schools were closed during the crisis, depriving more than 800,000 children of access to education. Schools are now re-opening, but only 400,000 children have so far returned.
Achille, 12, has just arrived back to his village from a Liberian refugee camp where – in order try and ensure a meal every day – he and the other children gathered crops and cassava and sold them to the other displaced people.
He hasn’t attended school since before last Christmas. When Achille fled, he left everything behind. “I left all my school books and pens in my house, we didn’t have the time to pack anything,” he says.
Basic supplies needed
Today, those belongings are gone. All Achille wants now is a bike, some books and something to eat, so that his life can get back to normal. UNICEF is ready to help one million children re-attend school, as soon as children and teachers all return home.
UNICEF has provided assistance to Ivorians affected by the crisis on both sides of the border. However, the volatile security situation in western Côte d’Ivoire is still hampering the swift delivery of relief supplies to people in need.