Liberia: More aid needed for "forgotten" Grand Kru county

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

BARCLAYVILLE, 7 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - While people across Liberia are returning home after 14 years of war, people living in Grand Kru county are leaving because life is just too tough.

The remote south-east county has not had its fair share of foreign assistance, say aid groups and government officials.

Grand Kru is inaccessible by road and has been cut off from the rest of the country for years. A little extra help would go a long way to keeping people in the "forgotten county" at home, aid workers say.

Its main town Barclayville, 688 km south east of the capital Monrovia, lies at the end of a broken and impassable dirt road.

Vehicles cannot cross the Nu River since the bridge was destroyed during fighting in the civil war. As a result, Barclayville and the two thirds of the county that lie beyond are cut off from the rest of Liberia.

"Patients with serious illnesses like severe malaria or surgical problems have to be transported [220 km] to Pleebo [close to the Ivorian border] by canoe and traditional stretcher," said Roosevelt Toe, the county's acting superintendent.

Roads have decayed and become overgrown by dense bush, rendering them impassable, except on foot. Residents have bitterly renamed Grand Kru "walking county".

"The inaccessibility and isolation of the area has led to the departure of many citizens of Grand Kru to more developed areas in [the neighbouring county of] Maryland and Monrovia," read a UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) report issued in April.

UNMIL's 15,000 peacekeeping forces provide security in Liberia and will assist the transitional government in holding national elections in October.

Prior to the civil war, which began in 1989, the population of Grand Kru was over 200,000 people, according to government statistics. Now UNMIL estimate there are only 71,000 remaining residents.

Aid workers say that the entire county has not received its fair share of a multi-million dollar assistance programme, as it is not a major area of return for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

"Grand Kru is not a high area of return, therefore it is not a priority for most agencies at this stage," said Gilert Bouis, programme manager for the Danish Refugee Council, one of only two organisations currently operating in Grand Kru.

The other, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told IRIN that the problem was not a shortage of medicine, rather a need for better-trained personnel.

"There are health centres and even the ICRC is presently working with five of those, but the problem is there is a lack of trained staff to properly handle serious health cases," said Tobias Epprecht, head of ICRC in Liberia.

Residents told IRIN that finding some foodstuffs can be a problem - particularly the national staple rice.

"If you are lucky enough to find a cup of rice around here it would be sold for 50 Liberian dollars! [90 cents] But you cannot find it easily and so we mostly eat fish from the river or the sea and coconuts," said Timothy Wreh.

A cup of rice is typically sold in Monrovia for 10 Liberian dollars [less then 20 cents].

Many children are being kept out of school so that they can muck in to find enough food for the family to eat.

"There are around 10,000 children living around Barclayville alone and over half of them are not in school either because they have to help their parents find a daily meal or because life is just too difficult here," said school teacher, Zechariah Swen.

But even the schools that can attract pupils are struggling to keep them through the rainy season, which runs from May to October, as the classrooms are all wet.

"During this rainy season our students are finding it hard to study because when it rains the water leaks from the roof and on to the students creating a very difficult learning environment," explained Stephen Doe, the head teacher of George Toe Washington elementary school.

George Toe Washington is reputedly the best school in Barclayville. But its 255 pupils sit beneath leaky palm-thatch roofs using bricks as makeshift desks and the school's clay frontage is collapsing into the dirt.


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