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Last Updated: 11/16/2004
A drizzly but hopeful day in Buduburum
Joanna Gaughan

Theresa, one of the would-be returnees to Liberia, is a middle-aged woman whose difficult life experiences show through in the lines etched on her face. She was forced to leave her country four years ago due to the ongoing violence there and has lived in exile in Ghana ever since.

Joanna Gaughan reports from Buduburum, Ghana..

Difficult decisions for Displaced Liberians


It is a drizzly, dreary day in Buduburum refugee camp, yet the rain can not dampen the spirits of nearly a hundred of the camp s inhabitants as they begin to gather in a cement block school building.  As relief workers distribute hundreds of blue plaid bags, exilees carting wheelbarrows full of clothing and other belongings arrive at the school and hurriedly start packing in preparation for a return to their home country of Liberia.  The atmosphere is simultaneously one of excitement and tension, as the would-be returnees try to fit all of their belongings in the few small bags they are permitted and wait to hear whether each one s papers have been processed.  Each person here hopes that he or she will be one of the lucky ones allotted a space on tomorrow s flight.


Theresa, one of the would-be returnees, is a middle-aged Liberian woman whose difficult life experiences show through in the lines etched on her face.  She was forced to leave her country four years ago due to the ongoing violence there and has lived in exile in Ghana ever since.


I ask Theresa whether she is concerned about the challenges she will face when she returns to her country.  She replies that she is aware of the risks involved in returning but is sure that living conditions in Liberia s capital Monrovia will be better than those in Buduburum, where desperately impoverished people are forced to pay inflated amounts for basic necessities like clean drinking water and even to use the toilet.

Samson Weagba, 27, is less optimistic.  He scoffs at his compatriots excitement about returning to Liberia the next day, saying that returnees should be realistic about what awaits them when they get back to Liberia.  He predicts that they will have no homes to return to and no place to stay and that some returnees will find entire villages where nothing is left standing.

Weagba agrees however that life at Buduburum is extremely difficult, saying that in the camp, even young children are forced to work in order to survive.

The hardships of life in Buduburum are not immediately apparent.  On first entering the community it looks more like a bustling town than a refugee camp.  There are taxis and a market with stalls full of vendors selling everything from shoes to fresh vegetables to handbags.  There is even a disco.

Yet as our guide, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Needa Jehu-Hoyah tells us, poverty, unemployment and a severe shortage of drinking water cause serious problems for the people who live here.  


One of the purposes of UNHCR is to assist groups of people who have had to flee their home countries due to violence and civil unrest.  Towards this end, the agency works in conjunction with a variety of NGOs to ensure that the basic material needs of such people (who may or may not meet the legal definition of refugee ) are met.  Yet both the agency s mandate and its resources are limited, so when it has been determined that a particular country of origin is safe for return, UNHCR can no longer provide material aid to exilees from that country.  This has been the case for those living at Buduburum, the vast majority of whom have received no aid from UNHCR since 2000.


For these reasons, UNHCR is conducting a major repatriation drive with the goal of facilitating the return of 100,000 of the 340,000 Liberian exilees currently living in ECOWAS countries by December of this year.  One hundred such persons, including Theresa, are leaving tomorrow on a flight organized by UNHCR as part of this repatriation campaign.  Yet despite this push for displaced Liberians to return home, Jehu-Hoyah emphasizes that repatriation is entirely voluntary and that UNHCR is presenting would-be returnees with all the facts so that they can make informed decisions about whether to return.

But what awaits those who do decide to return to Liberia?  According to the BBC, at least fourteen people died and over 200 were seriously injured as a result of recent riots in the capital city of Monrovia.  Reuters reports that the U.N. disarmament program in Liberia has not made sufficient progress and that large numbers of armed rebels continuing to roam the southeast region of the country.  And with the Liberian economy shattered and U.N. sanctions still in place, it will be extremely difficult for returnees to earn a living.  Instead, they are likely to join the 80 percent of Liberians living below the poverty line and the 85 to 95 percent who are unemployed. 

The exilees are aware of the challenges they face in returning to Liberia, yet many are determined to return and help rebuild their country.  James is a twenty-eight-year-old man who has been living in Buduburum since 2001; previously he lived in exile in Cote d'Ivoire for nine years.  James intends to go back to Liberia, but not on tomorrow's flight - he is waiting until he completes his studies in a local vocational school.

When I ask him why he wants to return, he says, I want to go help rebuild my country.  Staying here I will never help my country.

Others, like Theresa, simply feel the irresistable pull of home. 


That s my home, even though they kill people, she says.


Joanna Gaughan graduated from the University for Peace with a master’s degree in International Law and Human Rights. She is currently an Amnesty International Patrick Stewart Human Rights Fellow and is working in Ghana with the organization Journalists for Human Rights.