On Christmas Eve 1989 the nonviolent and unruffled people of a little border town abruptly woke up to the sounds of heavy gunfire and grenade explosions. Confused, they took to their heels, running helter-scatter like headless serpents, in search of refuge.
Later, they realized that a son of the soil had staged a “revolution“ of “freedom“ and regime-change (to wipe out endemic corruption, nepotism, tribalism and tyrannical rule among other undemocratic principles) that would last more than 14 years and change their country forever.
Many of those who left that border town – Buutuo – that momentous hour of darkness never returned. Only few did. Some died. Others are still in exile, but the town itself remained – though with wounding changes – with a unique history.
The Charles Ghankay Taylor-led National Patriotic Front rebel incursion (under the banner of ‘Freedom Fighters’) is the most atrocious and bloodiest civil strive Liberia has ever witnessed in its 163 years history of independence. It claimed more than an estimated 250,000 lives, sent half of million Liberians into displaced camps around the country and forced at least a quarter million others into exile.
The country, during those rowdy nearly 15 years (1989-2003) was plunged into madness of killings, looting and destruction, tainting its once shimmering image, with its people drinking from the wells of shame and shambles. All this started in Buutuo, though not at the will of the hapless people there.
Twenty-two years later, this same border town is again making history: This time, no one running from it as a result of artilleries sounds and explorations of caustic bombs, but people flocking into it as a safe haven.
Certainly, this Buutuo that produced the first bunch of refugees from Liberia to Ivory Coast has now opened wide its arms to reciprocate kindheartedness, and more than 80,000 Ivorian refugees have already overwhelmed the border town and its surrounding settlements and villages. More of them are coming into Liberia as the conflict intensifies in the sisterly country. Latest unconfirmed reports are that: gun sounds have been heard across the border, few shells and explosion have dropped in Liberia and fighting forces have captured several border towns with Liberia. Buutuo is however still a save haven.
Buutuo is the main border entry point between Liberia and Ivory Coast as already stated. It is the capital of Bou-Yao Administrative District, one of the three administrative districts that make of Zogeh District, one of the largest in Nimba.
Prior to the Liberian civil crisis, which was launched there in 1989, Buutou served as a bustling commercial town and a recognized revenue-generating center for the government, reports said. Today, these are only memoirs of yesteryear.
I was very delighted last month when I had an opportunity to travel to the historic border town. The UNFPA Advocacy and Communication Unit had invited me to travel with it as the UN agency was going on an assessment mission and to deliver reproductive health kits for use by the Ivorian refugees.
It should be noted here that reproductive health materials need to be in constant supplies to cater to the huge refugee population. Most of the refuges entering Liberia are women and children and the elderly. Of concern also is the huge number of baby mothers and pregnant women, and of course, teenage mothers in particular.
Reproductive health kits will help them take care of themselves and young babies and help many of them prevent unwanted pregnancies and combat the effect of rapes, which can not often be ruled out in situations like these. No wonder Health Minister Walter Gwenagale, who was also part of the mission, described the donation by the UNFPA as timely and later alarmed that condoms were in short supply in the refugees-inhabited district.
For me, I had never been to Buutou, even though I had read and heard everything about the town, from my boyhood day, when the war erupted.
I was delighted to travel there because I wanted to see for myself were Charles Taylor assembled his men to fire the first rebellious bullet on the Liberian soil. It is where the first batch of Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers was slaughtered. It is where more than 80,000 Ivorian refugees have gathered to seek sanctuary as a result of the crisis in their country. Yes, this same Buutuo.
But besides, the people of the region have over the years complained of being abandoned or forgotten in terms of development. Whether their claim of “neglect“ is true or false (and I see no reason why), lack of public infrastructures is no secret. The two major routes leading to the area are in very deplorable conditions. Bridges, most of them made of planks and logs are, out of date. Several are death traps. Only 4-wheeled vehicles and trucks gamble plying the routes. Several of them get wedged in the mud and on top of shaky bridges.
This writer is a living testimony of the danger these bridges pose. On our visit to the area, the tyres of the UNFPA vehicle in which he were riding slipped off the log on one of those bridges. It took at least 25 minutes to resolve the problem. The same vehicle got stuck in the mud on its way back. Three other vehicles including the one belonging to Health Minister Walter Gwanegale, which partially got damaged and later stuck over a dilapidated bridge and took more than 30 minutes to be removed, faced the same imbroglio.
Moreover, many schools of the area are built of sticks and mud with (some with thatch roofing) and are often short of educational supplies. Health facilities also taste the bitter pie, though there seems to be more health facilities in the region than schools.
However, despite all of these oddities, the people of Buutuo, Nimba County, are resilient and kind hearted. They consider the Ivorian refugees as their brothers and sisters.
I think we are under obligation to receive these people on our soil. For me they are brothers and sisters to us,“ said Joseph Wonnah. He and his family are playing host to an Ivorian family of four: a woman and her three children.Mr. Wonnah and hundreds of other family heads are catering to the refugees who are pouring in on a daily basis. “Food? We are managing with the little we have on a daily basis,“ Dekontee Paye explained. “The little food we had here is finished, but they get relive from the UNHCR and we add that to the little we get from the hustle to eat. God is with us.“
Strikingly, of course, was a refugee woman reportedly in her mid 30s that had given birth to her eleventh child two days before we got there. Madam Philomene, her children and mother are stopping with Madam Annie Menway, whose husband works at the Buutuo health center.
She left her husband behind and came with all the children. She gave birth two days ago; now, she has eleven including a twin,“ the smiling host said, while taking this writer and others to her mud house, roofed with thatch.Madam Philomene and her children were among the first batch of refugees the step foot on the Liberian soil last December in search of safe haven in the aftermath of the political crisis in her country.
She and her children solely depend on relief items given them by the UNHCR, through the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the little their host bring home, for survival.
Each of the refugees is receiving ration as follow: bulgur wheat (8.4 kilo), beans (1 kilo) corn mean (1 kilo) and oil (2.5 snaps). The larger the family the more the quantity of supply, and this suggests that Philomene and her family receive more ration than others. Besides, the locals are now joining with the refugees to register as one family to receive bigger rations, since most of them speak the same border languages and tribes.
That is just one situation. There are many of such cases in the border town and its surroundings. Buutuo is stressed. Food prices are climbing up. Cassava, potatoes and yam in gardens and farms are running short in the host community.
Foreign Minister McIntosh alarmed that the political stalemate in neighboring Ivory Coast is “deteriorating fast“ with rampant consequences on Liberia, a nation which graduated from similar catastrophe in 2003, after nearly 15 years of civil strife.
Brutal gun battles have erupted between forces loyal the both Laurent Gbagbo and Allasanne Quattara, both of who are claiming the presidency of the West African nation after the November 28, 2010 presidential runoff poll.
The international community including the UN, AU, EU, ECOWAS and other powerful nations, has backed Quattara’s victory announced by the electoral commission, prevailing on incumbent Gbagbo to cede power. But the strong man who was announced winner by the country’s constitutional court has refused to step down, a stalemate that has led to two parallel governments in Ivory Coast.
The looming civil war in that country has forced thousands of Ivoirians to flee for safety in neighboring countries including Liberia, where at least 70, 000 are so far said to be, with more in enroute.
“The situation,“ the Foreign Minister lamented, “has far reaching consequences on us and the peace we have built over the last seven years.“
Minister McIntosh indicated that besides the serious security threat the situation poses for Liberia, a country holding its second post war elections this year, it derails the welfare of thousands of Liberians living along the border, especially in terms of food, health and survival needs.
He said the entire host communities’ live and food stocks have or are depleting as thousands of refugees come in daily. He decried how relief supplies are difficult to reach the area due to very deplorable road conditions, which is getting terrible as the rainy season sets in.
The Liberian Government, he confessed, does to have the capacity to handle the situation, and appealed to the international community to rally more support to address both the political crisis in Ivory Coast and the humanitarian emergency created in Liberia.
More medical supplies are needed to respond to the health needs of the people (both refugees and the locals). Obviously, Buutuo, were the Liberian civil war began, when the rebel forces crossed from Ivory Coast, has become the save haven for thousands of Ivorian. Yes, this same Buutuo, 22 years later. By D Kaihenneh Sengbeh (06 586 531; firstname.lastname@example.org)