"I am very glad to see you in my hometown. You are welcome to Liberia," she told Henok Ochalla, the UNHCR field officer in eastern Sierra Leone's Largo refugee camp, where she used to live.
"Look at my house that was destroyed during the war," said Vannie, pointing to a dilapidated structure under reconstruction in Tahn Town, western Liberia. "Nobody will rebuild your home for you when you are several miles away. People must be courageous to return and rebuild their homes."
The returnee, who supports her family through small trading, admitted that the situation at home was challenging but that it was better than life in exile. She was sharing her experience with Ochalla, part of a UNHCR team from Sierra Leone visiting Liberia this week to see how returnees were rebuilding their lives in Grand Cape Mount and Lofa counties.
"We can now sleep and carry out our activities in peace, with no more sounds of guns and bombs," said Arthur M. Konneh Snr, the former chairman of Gondama camp, one of the eight camps currently hosting some 48,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.
He returned home about four months ago and is grateful to UNHCR and its partners for giving humanitarian assistance to refugees and assisting returnees with community empowerment projects such as rehabilitating schools and clinics, and providing water and sanitation facilities.
"As the former chairperson of Gondama camp, I would like to urge our brothers and sisters still in IDP [internally displaced people] and refugee camps to return. Our country needs human resources to move forward," said Konneh.
The children are equally happy to be home. "I am attending the Tahn Community School in Grand Cape Mount county and I am glad to be continuing my schooling in Liberia together with my brothers, sisters and friends," said Joseph Taylor, 16, who returned from Largo camp.
The school he attends runs classes from nursery to junior secondary level and was renovated by UNHCR. His teachers are also former refugees or internally displaced people.
"We reopened the school in January 2005 after some years of closure as a result of the war," said principal Alfred D. Cooke, who was previously displaced in Monrovia. "We started with 76 pupils, but with refugees and displaced people gradually returning home, we now have over 400 pupils."
The principal explained that pupils do not pay school fees, apart from 20 Liberian dollars (US$0.35) that parents agreed to contribute towards buying condiments for the dry rations of bulgur wheat, vegetable oil and beans provided by the World Food Programme through the non-governmental organisation, German Agro Action.
"Basically, the children are fed in school, the tuition is free for now, the pupils are assisted with school materials from UNICEF," said Cooke. "We admit any refugee or IDP child who returns home today."
Deputy principal Steven Kemokai, who was a teacher and the agriculture committee chairman in Gondama camp, said the school will be upgraded to senior secondary level next academic year.
"One of our main challenges in return areas is a lack of teachers," said Kemokai. "UNHCR and its partners are rehabilitating our schools, hospitals and clinics, but most of the teachers and medical personnel are still in IDP or refugee camps, so we are appealing to them to return home."
In a meeting with community elders in Tahn Town, Liberian member of parliament James K. Momo said he was an internally displaced person and urged Liberians to return: "We want our people to return home so they will take part in the reconstruction process of Liberia."
Marious Buga of UNHCR's Tubmanburg office noted, "When we started reintegration operations in mid-2004, life was quite difficult in most return areas. But with UNHCR and other actors assisting communities with projects and assisting with seeds and agricultural tools, it pleases us to see that Liberians are once again rebuilding their lives in peace."
Close to 5,500 Liberian refugees have returned home from Sierra Leone in the voluntary repatriation that started in October last year. Of this number, about 2,338 returnees have returned to Grand Cape Mount county. The team from Sierra Leone is also visiting return areas in Lofa county, from where about 30,000 of the refugees in Sierra Leone hail.
The UNHCR voluntary repatriation operation has so far help over 23,000 Liberian refugees to return home from regional countries.
By Sulaiman Momodu
In Tubmanburg, Liberia