Hundreds of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire have found a modest sanctuary in Butuo, Nimba County, in eastern Liberia, where they share land and lodgings with a local population of around 3,000.
According to local officials, the influx began in earnest in December, in the immediate aftermath of the Ivoirian elections, as Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara contested the results and formed rival administrations.
First, the refugees were mainly women and children, the men staying behind to protect property and see out the troubles. "They were coming plenty", recalls Butuo women's leader Annie Quale. "At that time guns were not shooting. Our leaders asked them: `What happened?’ They said they had two presidents in the country after the voting; there was confusion, they wanted to be rescued in time."
Quale confirmed that as the violence worsened and gunfire could be heard across the border, more male refugees appeared. "We are a border town, so we are used to this," Quale pointed out, recalling similar patterns of migration after earlier outbreaks of violence in 2003 and 2004.
She said people immediately started to share food and lodgings, while schools closed for a fortnight as refugees slept where they could.
Five months since the crisis began and Ivoirians are still crossing over from places like Toulepleu and Bin-houyé, part of a still-volatile swathe of Ivoirian territory that lies adjacent to Butuo.
While Nimba County still has the largest number of refugees, Grand Geddeh and Maryland to the south have also taken in large populations, reflecting the continuing tensions in the southwest of Côte d'Ivoire.
Family meets family
Butuo’s superintendent, Albert Farnga, says the host community has done what it can to make the newcomers welcome, partly as a gesture of reciprocation for the hospitality extended to Liberians during its civil war.
"Liberia had a problem before and we went into these people’s homes," Farnga told IRIN, emphasizing that both national and local authorities had appealed to Liberians to be open and accommodating.
In Butuo, most of the refugees are from the Yacouba ethnic group, sharing close linguistic and family ties with the Gio in Liberia, which has eased their acceptance.
Local residents have opened their houses, sheltering families at considerable sacrifice. "I am incredibly touched by the simple love and generosity of the people", said David Waines, head of NGO Equip Liberia, which has rapidly expanded health and sanitation programmes in Nimba to help communities cope with the influx.
Relief organizations cite the flexibility of the Liberian government and the hospitality of ordinary Liberians as major factors in securing the physical well-being of a huge refugee population, particularly during the long period before international aid arrived.
"The Liberian government kept the frontiers open from the beginning of the crisis," UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative Ibrahima Coly told IRIN.
Coly said relief organizations had liaised closely with local authorities throughout, discussing living arrangements for refugees and the location of camp sites, reacting to new priorities.
According to Waines, the combined efforts of local health services and NGOs had prevented major epidemics, "but it's been a never-ending sprint just keeping our head above water."
Local health staff say they have ratcheted up their service as much as possible, although there have been complaints from workers about promised incentives not materializing as the workload expanded. As elsewhere in Liberia, with or without a refugee presence, Butuo’s local health facilities struggle to cope with routine medical challenges, particularly malaria and respiratory infections.
More serious complaints are referred to the hospital at Sacleplea, in Nimba County, a few hours drive west.
Health workers talk also of the stress faced by the refugees they are treating, their evident discomfort and anxiety.
Preparing for shortages
Butuo’s superintendent, Farnga, acknowledges that Butuo and the surrounding region of Zoe-Geh in Nimba, will struggle to sustain a long-term refugee presence, pointing out there are simply not enough resources for an already impoverished local population.
"Already in March, we were running out of things," Farnga told IRIN. "Firewood was being used for fuel, cassava on the farms was finished; we depleted everything."
It is crucial that relief operations targeting refugees also take note of local needs, said Fargna. "We will become slaves of our own goodness," he warned, stressing the need for outside agencies to replenish seeds and food reserves.
Food stocks were relatively high when refugees first arrived from November onwards, but the situation is likely to get much more critical. With Liberia now moving into a six-month rainy season, an already fragile road network will become increasingly treacherous, making it difficult to get supplies through, although a bridge-building programme has brought some improvements.
"When the hunger hits, it's going to be a real catastrophe," Equip Liberia head Waines told IRIN, warning of a possible migration out of parts of eastern Liberia.
Coly of the UNHCR acknowledged that the "absorptive capacity" of the more than 200 Liberian villages that had taken in refugees had diminished, but noted that the World Food Programme and other agencies were working on expanding food distribution to both refugees and host communities. Coly said it is vital that seed distribution and planting are given top priority.
The onset of the rainy season offers little incentive for refugees to return home. As their Liberian hosts acknowledge, returnees are going back, with no food reserves, to abandoned fields and extremely fragile prospects.
No rapid return
Relief organizations and local people are not banking on any large-scale returns in 2011, whatever noises of encouragement come from the new government in Abidjan.
Fargna accepts refugees should not feel compelled either to move into specially-created camps or cross the border. He helped set up the main camp at Bahn, west of Butuo, which can offer residents proper sanitation and security, but most refugees have opted to stay with host families in villages.
Fargna understands the reluctance of refugees to move to Bahn. "There is no way you can force them to go to the camp… If you have got the hope of staying here in this area with the local people, you can stay here."
This is a view echoed by Harris Menlore Fray, who heads a local NGO, the Community Humanitarian Assistance Program (CHAP). But he has strong caveats: "We have been very, very receptive," he stressed. But Butuo may have to prepare for a much longer-term integration process. Finding temporary shelter and food for refugees, along with the occasional bit of paid work, does not go far enough, he said.
Fray talks of providing counselling, micro-finance schemes and entrepreneurial training - all possible if enough support comes from outside. He has sympathy for those who have taken up residence in Butuo, but not for the political leaders who forced their flight.
"Frankly speaking, it’s very pathetic. We thought they would learn some lessons from us, from all the horror, the terror. But to our surprise, they took the wrongful path and emulated what we did here."
It was in Butuo where former Liberian President Charles Taylor launched his insurgency in December 1989, marking the beginning of a 14-year civil war, which forced hundreds of thousands of Liberians from their homes, many pouring into Ivoirian towns and villages along the border.
"It is not a political solution that is going to resolve the humanitarian questions. They are separate, albeit linked," Fray added.
Coly notes with frustration the dangers of a continuing refugee problem being overlooked as media coverage of Côte d'Ivoire declines amid bland and dangerous assumptions that the key problems have been resolved; donor support remains well below what it should be.