On Saturday, the team flew by helicopter to Voinjama, 260 km north of Monrovia, and was welcomed by scores of Liberians, mainly women and children, who have been attempting to rebuild their lives in an area that has been completely looted, where even tin roofing sheets have disappeared.
Local authorities say 15,000 of the town's pre-war population of 20,000 have gone back, including 475 who returned from the bush in the past several days. Most of those in the area appeared to be members of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), or their followers and families.
LURD launched a rebellion in April 1999 from Voinjama, a three-hour walk from the border with Guinea, and together with another armed group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), drove former president Charles Taylor into exile in August. These guerrillas later signed a peace agreement with an interim government ending 14 years of off-and-on civil conflict.
The mission to Voinjama was the first UN initiative to the area since the inauguration last Tuesday of businessman Charles Gyude Bryant at the head of a government of national reconciliation. It was accompanied by the chief of staff of the LURD army.
The LURD general told welcomers in Voinjama that the war was over and he expected the people to work closely with the UN and aid agencies. He said emergency relief was needed and all support should be given to the organisations.
The visiting UN team found the town hospital in total ruins and a clinic operating with very limited supplies. The office of the UN refugee agency and its staff houses were destroyed, along with the Catholic mission and an old health clinic. Access roads were overgrown with bush.
Although the population appeared to be in good health and there seemed to be no signs of malnutrition, authorities said the residents lack food, medicines and clothing. There was also insufficient drinking water.
The team found a building near the municipal offices and LURD officials agreed that it could be used as a joint UN office and residence. The mission also agreed that Voinjama must be accessed by road as soon as possible so that emergency relief could begin.
Since the departure of Taylor, relative peace has been reported in large areas of Liberia. In the north-eastern part of the country, thousands of Liberians have been returning. However, skirmishes have been reported in central Liberia, particularly in Bong and Nimba counties. There are reports of uprooted people on the move as a result of clashes with Taylor loyalists.
In Monrovia, UNHCR has been involved in an inter-agency effort to decongest camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs, particularly in schools that are being cleaned in time for the resumption of classes later this month. Around 150,000 of the estimated 500,000 IDPs are in the greater Monrovia area, crammed in makeshift shelters and private houses. Surrounding countries also host some 260,000 Liberian refugees.