19.09.2004 General News

Fear and loathing in Ghana

By Toronto Star
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Liberian refugee camp placed under martial law Refugees afraid of troops; Ghanaians afraid of rebels

ACCRA, GHANA—The Ghanaian government has placed a long-established camp for Liberian refugees under martial law, fearing that it is being used to recruit mercenary rebels bent on upsetting Ghana's December general elections.

Police and troops are patrolling the sprawling Buduburam camp's snaking pathways and searching every vehicle coming in or out.

Anyone who cannot produce proof of citizenship or a United Nations identification number is taken from the camp and questioned.

On a typical night, more than 100 Ghanaian soldiers wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying assault rifles stand in formation in the camp's dusty main square.

"A lot of people are very much panicking," says Francis Hinney, chair of the camp's Refugee Welfare Council, a sort of local government.

"These people are running from armed conflict. If you've seen your whole family wiped out by people wearing that same type of uniform, that same colour, carrying that same kind of gun, how would you feel seeing that at this camp today?"

Restrictions at the camp were implemented after the National Transitional Liberia Authority placed an advertisement in a Liberian newspaper warning that armed rebels could cause instability in neighbouring countries, including Ghana.

While some dismiss the advertisement as a hoax, Ghanaian officials aren't taking any chances.

Hinney, however, argues that the refugees have no reason to harm a country that has been playing host to some of them for 14 years.

"Why would Liberians want to do that?" he asks. "Why would we want to take over Ghana, why?"

Refugees have been coming to Buduburam camp, about 40 kilometres west of Accra, the Ghanaian capital, since 1990. Its population has swelled to about 42,000 in the wake of the civil war that forced former president Charles Taylor into Nigerian exile in August 2003.

Jane Muigai, the U.N. protection officer for the camp, says the Ghanaian government has been "civil" about the new restrictions, adding that the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has received no complaints about harassment or intimidation from camp residents.

"I think the government of Ghana has repeatedly said they're taking these measures so that security is not taken for granted. No ill-intentioned person is going to take advantage of the camp."

Some 1,200 residents have registered with a camp-based, refugee-run agency to return home.

But Liberia is hardly ready for the return of its refugees, who represent almost one-third of its population of 3 million.

The transitional Liberian government put in place by the U.N. after Taylor fled last year is sliding into disarray, with appointees accusing each other of partisan politics.

A U.N.-led disarmament project is slipping further and further behind schedule, having secured only parts of the capital city, Monrovia.

And despite repeated calls for warring factions to submit lists of cached weapons, it remains unclear how many guns, rocket launchers and heavier weapons remain in the country.

Even interim President Charles Gyude Bryant hasn't ventured outside the well-protected confines of Monrovia.

A U.N.-sponsored voluntary repatriation program scheduled for next month likely will assist in only the most desperate of cases, Muigai says, and a full campaign to return refugees to Liberia likely won't take place until next year, when there's a better assessment of the situation there.

"There are villages and towns that have disappeared," says James Kollie, executive director of the Association for the Reconstruction of Liberia, a group devoted to getting refugees ready for their eventual return home.

"When people are repatriated, they should not compound the problems at home, they should be peacemakers.

"If a person is repatriated and he doesn't have a place to stay, or the refugee camp is better than what's at home, he's going to get into trouble fast."

Some long-term refugees learned a hard lesson in 1997, when a general election swept Taylor into office with more than 70 per cent of the popular vote.

Thousands returned to Liberia, only to discover that there was nothing in the country for them but roving gangs of violent rebels.

"There were no preparations made for the return of the refugees," explains Jos Garneo Cephas, a journalist living just outside Buduburam camp who returned briefly to Liberia in 1997 as a U.N. monitor.

He says refugees were bundled onto buses heading for their home regions, but when they arrived, they discovered they had come home to nothing: no homes no jobs, no roads, no crops, no tools.

Nothing but resentment, hunger and rebels.

Some people slept on the streets, others returned to the refugee camp disillusioned. Some, he says, were killed.

"We want our people to go home freely," says Jerry Tiehn, who is recruiting camp residents into training programs designed to give returning refugees a new start as electricians, carpenters or computer programmers.

"If they're going to go home, we want them to go home prepared to start a new life."

Irene Jayee hasn't been back to Liberia since joining the camp's first wave of refugees in 1990 and two of her five children were born here.

Still, she keeps the BBC humming on the radio in the background day and night, awaiting word that peacekeepers have moved into Liberia's rural areas and disarmed the rebel gangs.

"The country is still not safe," she says.

Matthew Cephas disagrees, saying he'll return home as soon as the U.N. makes a repatriation offer.

"I feel the country is safe, even though it's not 100 per cent clear and free, based on the disarmament," insists the computer-engineering student.

Abraham Taylor, however, won't let the presence of Ghanaian soldiers scare him into leaving before he's ready.

"I'm not willing to go back now," he says, adding that he intends to stay at Buduburam until he is certified as an electrician. "We're going to be together. We're going to make sure there's peace in our country.

"The time will come when we can return for good, but for now we've got to settle a thing or two before we can go back.

"I need to be a real man, because when I go home, I need to be on my feet."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Karen Palmer is currently volunteering with Journalists for Human Rights in Ghana.

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