Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ivorians Fleeing Home

By Adam Flango
Cope edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

In late November of 2010, thousands of Ivorians heard gunshots and began to run. Violence broke out in the capital city of Abidjan after the results of the 2010 presidential election in Cote D’Ivoire. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo was voted out of office and was to be replaced by Alassane Ouattara. But Gbagbo refused to step down from his position, creating political turmoil in the West African nation.

For nearly six months, the country remained divided. Violence between Gbagbo supporters and Ouattara supporters led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch. But even more than that, it led to hundreds of thousands of citizens fleeing Cote D’Ivoire in search of a more peaceful area. It was their first instinct after having suffered through a similar situation in 2002. Many left their villages, their crops, and their families behind.
International Committee of Red Cross workers become very
attached refugees while helping at the Bahn refugee camp in
south-eastern Liberia (Photo courtesy of International
Committee of Red Cross)

Now, 15 months after the struggle began and 8 months after Gbagbo, who is now being tried for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court, was detained and Ouattara assumed his position as president, conditions in Cote D’Ivoire have improved. But the country still struggles to piece itself together.

Thousands of native Ivorians remain displaced within their country or refugees in other countries. The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that the number of Ivorians displaced peaked at over one million people.

Most refugees fled to neighboring Liberia, a small country that does not have the resources necessary to accommodate such a massive influx of people.

“It was pretty tough because Liberia is a country that is recovering from 14 years of on and off conflict,” said Sulaiman Momodu, spokesperson for UNHCR in Liberia. “So for them to have huge numbers, thousands of people, crossing into the country was quite a challenge.”

For Ivorians, it was a challenge as well. Many fled to a country with less violence, but with so little time to prepare and set up refugee camps, the resources for Ivorians were scarce. It was now a different kind of struggle for the refugees.

“So before you know it, all the villages on the border were full,” said Momodu. “What that means is that there was strain on the water resource, the food in the communities finished, shelters and accommodation was quite a problem.”

After most of the violence ended with the arrest of Gbagbo, the refugees faced difficult decisions. In just a few months, their country was torn apart and now it struggled to repair the emotional and physical damage done to its people.

“Often times we think when a political crisis is more or less over and the elections are over, the new president is in place and the problems are solved,” said Layal Horanieh, spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross delegation in Cote D’Ivoire. “But it’s not exactly like that. It takes a long time for things to fall back in place.”

The ICRC is one of multiple non-governmental organizations stationed in Cote D’Ivoire and the surrounding areas that are attempting to help rebuild the country.

Horanieh was not living in the country when the violence erupted, but she has seen the ramifications that it has had on the country.

“You’re talking about entire health clinics that were destroyed that I saw with my own eyes that still remain destroyed to this day in certain areas,” Horanieh said. “A lot of people that fled three months or more came back to overgrown plantations.”

In September 2011, the U.N. began voluntarily repatriation of refugees back into Cote D’Ivoire, some of which were afraid to return because of their support for Gbagbo. But with so much still broken in the country, it is still difficult for some Ivorians to believe that they would be better served returning home.

“Often times you’ll find [Ivorian] adults on the Liberian side saying, what am I going to go back to?” said Horanieh. “I’ve seen that for myself. There are still entire villages that are simply run down.”

But despite the difficult conditions faced by the refugees, there are signs of progress. Groups like the ICRC have worked together to reunite children separated by the conflict with their families.

Children were regularly abandoned because of how quickly the violence broke out. But the ICRC has registered more than 600 children, according to their website, and are working to reunite them with their families.

ICRC has specific procedures in place to ensure that families are reunited accurately and have helped hundreds of children reunite with their families.

For people working with humanitarian organizations, the reunification is their greatest reward.

On January 17, ten days before being interviewed, Horanieh saw eight children reunited with their families. “I still have goose bumps just thinking about it, It’s the biggest reward a humanitarian aid worker can witness,” she said. “It’s just incredible. Truly incredible.”

Children as young as four, children that were left behind because of they are slower than the older children, are being introduced to the families that left them behind.

The scenes, however, do not always play out like a Hollywood movie. There is so much emotional damage that children do not necessarily run to their parents and hug them with tears streaming down their face, Horanieh said.

“Yes they do hug their parents and they are happy, but you feel the trauma on their faces,” said Horanieh.

The ICRC’s reunification process is a sign of hope for a country that has faced numerous obstacles and still has thousands of their people scattered throughout different parts of Africa.

“We still have more than 128,000 Ivorians in the seven camps still living in Liberia,” said Momodu. “And most of them would like to stay a bit longer.”

The length they stay will depend on the progress made in Cote D’Ivoire.

For now, displaced Ivorians wait.

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