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West Africa's Refugee Crisis Spills Across Many Borders

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West Africa's Refugee Crisis Spills Across Many Borders

News that U.S. government officials are seriously considering a deployment of American peacekeeping troops to halt warfare in the West African country of Liberia has nudged American media in recent weeks to focus at least limited attention on an intensely poor, politically unstable corner of the world that rarely receives international news coverage.

The four West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire—home to an estimated combined population of nearly 35 million people in an area slightly larger than Texas—have much in common, including their borders, their wars, their political intrigues, and their massively uprooted populations. The current emergency in Liberia is the latest stop in what one international relief group grimly described as a "merry-go-round of violence" in West Africa for 14 years running.

Liberia's descent into civil war in late 1989 spilled into Sierra Leone in 1991, triggering a brutal 10-year armed insurgency there that remained closely linked to Liberia's conflict. Combatants from Sierra Leone and Liberia inevitably attacked border communities in neighboring Guinea in 1999-2000, pushing the violence into that otherwise peaceful country. Civil war finally engulfed Cote d'Ivoire in late 2002 after a decade of rising political and social tensions there. The violence in Cote d'Ivoire early this year attracted armed groups from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Now the region's bloodshed has returned to Liberia, from whence it began.

"The arc of instability in West Africa is linked together. The violence is interwoven," an analyst for an international humanitarian organization explained. "War in Liberia begat war in Sierra Leone, which in turn begat attacks in Guinea and prolonged the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire. The recognized borders don't mean anything to many of the hardcore combatants. When a country finally achieves a peace treaty, the guys who make a living through the barrel of their guns seep across the border to the next country."

The effect on civilians has been devastating. Fresh violence in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire has forced an estimated one million West Africans to flee in search of safety during the past 12 months alone. Fourteen years of warfare and pervasive human rights abuses against civilian populations throughout the region have cost up to a quarter-million lives and left at least 1.1 million people living as refugees or internally displaced persons as of mid-2003. Some relief officials assert that the number of people currently uprooted might be as high as 1.5 million.

The long regional nightmare has left four of the world's most impoverished and least developed countries even more destitute. UN statistics rank Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d'Ivoire among the 20 poorest countries on earth. Sierra Leone, in fact, is dead last among 175 nations, according to the UN Development Program.

Despite the grim picture, some recent developments have sparked hope of a turnaround in West Africa and have placed pressure on the Bush Administration to do its part to nurture stability by placing American troops in Liberia. The British government inserted its military forces into Sierra Leone in 2000, ending that country's civil war. France sent soldiers to Cote d'Ivoire during the past year to produce a fragile political settlement. And Guinea, though struggling, has thus far avoided the violent government overthrow that many international observers had predicted for it in recent years.

In the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Africa in July, many Africans and Western diplomats regard U.S. policy toward Liberia as the truest test of America's commitment to the African continent.

Deploying American troops to end the civil war in Liberia "will redound to America's credit throughout Africa," Princeton Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, stated in an analysis published in the Washington Post in mid-July. "It will give substance to President Bush's many promises of help during his recent trip…. And it will solidify allied cooperation and burden-sharing in Africa…"

Following is a review of the overlapping political and humanitarian situations in Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone as the region and its traumatized people attempt to crawl back to some semblance of peace and security.

Liberia: Root of Regional Instability

Much of West Africa's violence reaches back to the eruption of civil war in Liberia in late 1989. The region had no major refugee problems until that time. Liberians believed that their country—partially founded by freed American slaves—enjoyed a "special relationship" with the United States that would protect Liberia from the bloodshed prevalent elsewhere on the continent.

As the Liberian war quickly spiraled out of control in the early 1990s with ethnic massacres perpetrated by as many as 11 armed groups formed largely along ethnic lines, more than half of the country's three million people fled their homes. The main rebel force, led by Charles Taylor, controlled much of the countryside but failed to seize the capital, Monrovia. West African peacekeeping troops—primarily from Nigeria—protected the capital and became active belligerents in the war.

As the military situation reached a stalemate in the mid-1990s, all sides grudgingly agreed to a cease-fire and national elections. Voters elected Taylor as president in 1997 after he threatened to resume the war if defeated at the polling booth. By 1999, nearly 90 percent of all Liberian refugees and displaced persons had returned home despite growing dismay at government corruption and human rights abuses. The international community condemned Taylor's government for its continued participation in Sierra Leone's civil war and its smuggling of Sierra Leonean diamonds.

A new rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconstruction and Development (LURD), dominated by ethnic Mandingos and using Guinea as a base, launched attacks in remote northern Liberia in 2000, provoking brutal countermeasures by Liberian government troops. A new wave of population displacement ensued as the LURD insurgency gained strength and reached the edge of Monrovia in mid-2003. A second rebel group materialized in May, known as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia and primarily composed of ethnic Krahn.

The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Taylor in June 2003 for war crimes. Taylor responded by promising to cede power and agreeing to accept an offer of temporary asylum in Nigeria. By mid-July, however, Taylor remained in office and the civil war to oust him inched ever-closer to the heart of Monrovia.

The humanitarian situation in Liberia is "despairing," the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance reported in recent weeks. Uprooted Liberians regularly have found themselves caught on the war's front lines, as both sides attacked camps for displaced persons and extorted money from families desperately trying to reach refugee camps in neighboring countries.

An estimated 700,000 Liberians were uprooted as of late July, including at least 500,000 within the country and more than 200,000 living as refugees outside Liberia. Displaced families have congregated at a handful of designated camps and 90 impromptu sites in and near Monrovia, where they remain unsafe.

The few humanitarian aid workers in the country—most relief groups evacuated their international staff in June—report that water shortages, measles, malaria, cholera, and other diarrheal diseases plague Liberia's displaced persons as well as families struggling to shelter them, particularly in the overcrowded capital (see related article in this issue). Malnutrition is increasing at some displacement camps where no food distributions have occurred since April, the World Food Program (WFP) warned in July. The annual mid-year tropical rainy season has made conditions even more difficult.

Relief organizations fear that a humanitarian catastrophe is in the making if they do not respond, but wholesale looting of relief items might occur if they do attempt to intervene with large quantities of supplies amid the country's growing anarchy.

"Warehouses have been looted, our vehicles have been stolen and vandalized, fuel is in short supply, communications are difficult, and security remains a real problem," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees lamented in July. "UNHCR's warehouses had contained tons of blankets, mattresses, kitchenware, food, medical supplies, generators, and other items… All of it has been looted."

A Liberian politician opposed to Taylor stated in July that Liberians' reverence for the United States is so great that "even if only 12 U.S. Marines walked down the streets of Monrovia, we would have an end to war." It is a view widely held among Liberians. It might soon get its first test.

Cote d'Ivoire: Violence Overtakes Regional Anchor

Cote d'Ivoire's reputation as the anchor of stability for West Africa began to fade in 1999-2000 following a military coup and an outbreak of communal violence.

Despite those warnings of unrest, few international observers foresaw the sudden civil war that gripped Cote d'Ivoire in September 2002. Rebel soldiers seized their home areas in the northern half of the country in a matter of days and threatened to march against Abidjan, the country's commercial hub.

Despite an official cease-fire in January 2003, violence in western Cote d'Ivoire persisted throughout the first half of the year, made worse by the arrival of combatants from Liberia and Sierra Leone seeking to fight for the highest bidder or simply exploit opportunities for looting.

The war pushed at least 600,000 people from their homes, and a significant proportion have not yet reintegrated. Most of the uprooted are Ivorians who raced to find shelter with friends and relatives in safer areas of the country. Some 80,000 or more immigrants—referred to as "third-country nationals" by aid workers—fled the country and returned to Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Guinea, and elsewhere.

As in Liberia's war, uprooted people in Cote d'Ivoire became targets of violence. Some 70,000 Liberian refugees living in western Cote d'Ivoire suffered attacks by Ivorians who viewed the refugee population as a security threat. About 30,000 frightened Liberian refugees fled Cote d'Ivoire despite the dangers awaiting them in Liberia. UNHCR officials in Cote d'Ivoire desperately attempted to evacuate the remaining Liberian refugees to safer countries in the region, such as Ghana or Benin, but African governments largely refused to help.

Further complicating the situation, renewed violence in Liberia during May-June pushed up to 30,000 new Liberian refugees into southwestern Cote d'Ivoire, where food, water, and shelter are already in short supply. Ivorian militia gangs along the border, armed with guns and machetes, reportedly have robbed newly arrived refugees or blocked them from entering the country.

"Many Ivorians now blame the refugees for allegedly bringing the conflict to their soil, and they want the Liberians out," UNHCR reported.

Some 4,000 French troops and 1,500 West African peacekeeping soldiers entered Cote d'Ivoire in early 2003. All sides agreed to form a power-sharing government in April. Cote d'Ivoire's president, Laurent Gbagbo, declared on July 4 that the war had officially ended.

Displaced Ivorians are gradually returning home with the onset of peace in their country, but life is still far from normal. Returnees in the west have found their water supplies contaminated by dead bodies left behind in wells. Fewer than half of the hospitals and health clinics are functioning in the northern half of the country, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Forty residents of one town died of measles during a two-day span. Food shortages and malnutrition have grown worse at some locations.

"The worst thing," according to a French peacekeeping soldier, "is that the population is coming back en masse with nothing to eat."

Sierra Leone: After War, Reasons for Hope

Ten years of civil war in Sierra Leone left 50,000 people dead, approximately a million people living as refugees or internally displaced, and some 4,000 civilians deliberately maimed by rebels who gained international notoriety for their practice of cutting off civilians' hands, ears, and other body parts.

Sierra Leone and its 5.5 million people have emerged from that nightmare to become a source of hope in West Africa. The country's war officially ended in early 2002, most combatants have disarmed, and 95 percent of all uprooted Sierra Leoneans have returned home. The country conducted national elections in mid-2002.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, backed by the UN, has indicted 12 people for war crimes, including rebel leaders, government army commanders, pro-government militia leaders, and Liberia's President Taylor. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission began public hearings in April 2003 on war-related human rights abuses. The government has pledged to impose stricter controls on the country's lucrative diamond mines to curb the wholesale smuggling that has helped fund the region's persistent wars. More than 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops remain in the country.

The optimism is tempered, however, by reports that government corruption is again on the rise. Devastation remains evident in areas that produced the largest numbers of refugees during the war. Donor nations have provided about half of the $108 million that UN relief agencies say they need this year to support reintegration and reconstruction efforts. Funding shortfalls are particularly severe for shelter projects, health programs, and projects to improve civilian protection and the rule of law.

Some 50,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have not yet repatriated because of the daunting economic problems awaiting them when they return. The widening war in Liberia pushed 20,000 Sierra Leonean refugees home from that country during the first half of the year.

Sierra Leone currently hosts about 50,000 Liberian refugees in seven camps. UN refugee officials are bracing for an expected influx of 30,000 additional refugees from Liberia in the second half of the year.

Guinea: Haven for Refugees and Combatants

Guinea remains the primary asylum country for West Africa's refugees. Refugee influxes during the 1990s were so overwhelming that, for several years, Guinea hosted the largest refugee population on the continent. Some 120,000 Liberian and up to 50,000 Sierra Leonean refugees continued to reside in Guinea as of July 2003.

Guinean officials expect thousands more refugees will arrive if Liberia's violence continues. Plans to expand existing camps and shift refugees to new sites are under way, but poor roads, heavy rains, Guinean government corruption, and UNHCR budget constraints have slowed improvements to relief programs for years.

Protection of refugees is also a concern in Guinea. Combatants from Liberia and Sierra Leone attacked refugee sites in Guinea in 1999 and 2000, and refugees have complained for years about harassment from Guinean police and soldiers. A report by UNHCR and Save the Children Federation in 2002 charged that sexual exploitation of refugee women and children by security officials, local aid workers, and refugee leaders occurred regularly.

Liberian rebels allied with Guinean soldiers on the border have at times blocked Liberians from entering Guinea or have pressed would-be refugees into forced labor before giving them safe-passage into Guinea. Guinea's largest refugee camp, Kouankan, has become partially militarized by Liberian rebels who openly circulate there. UNHCR hopes eventually to transfer Kouankan's legitimate refugees to new locations.

Despite Guinea's checkered reputation as an asylum country, thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans are alive today because they managed to find sustained refuge there. For Guinea and all of West Africa in mid-2003, the fateful question hanging in the balance is whether American peacekeeping troops will finally move decisively to end the bloody war in Liberia—possibly bringing relative peace to the entire region for the first time in 14 years—or whether Guinea will once more become the destination of last resort for tens of thousands of new refugees desperate to survive their region's unbroken cycle of violence.