As refugees look set to stay in eastern Liberia for some time to come, they are starting to lay the foundations of new lives in their temporary home, while aid agencies and donors try to revamp their aid responses to address longer-term needs.
The vast majority of refugees say they cannot envisage returning home within the next six months - many IRIN spoke to said they could not imagine returning within the year - unless a clear plan to improve security in western Côte d’Ivoire is put in place.
All over Janzon Axis, a village some 20km from Zwedru, capital of Grand Geddeh County, Ivoirians are busy building simple wooden houses. Some 29,000 Ivoirians have settled here in recent months, quadrupling the village’s population.
Parts of the village are starting to look crowded. But with forest surrounding them, land is not an issue, said Thomas Roo, who has helped two refugee families build houses on his plot of land. “We have plenty of land for houses here,” he told IRIN. “We were all refugees with these same people once,” he said.
Village chief James Moroo is hosting the same Ivoirian family who hosted him for 14 years in their village across the border, during Liberia’s civil war. Most of the refugees here are from the Guéré community, closely connected to the Krahn in Liberia.
While some facilities in the village, like latrines, and the local school are stretched - the school now runs two daily sessions, one for Liberians, one for Ivoirians - some local villagers say life has improved since the refugees arrived. Food aid is being delivered to refugee and host families by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme; free health services at the local clinic - provided by NGO Merlin - have been stepped up; and a play area for children has been set up by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children.
A move into camps
But UNHCR wants to move the bulk of the refugee population into camps by the end of the year. The plan is to settle 80,000 people across four camps; while 30,000 will remain in villages, and a predicted 30,000 will return to Cote d’Ivoire.
Several Ivoirians in Janzon Axis told IRIN they did not want to move to a camp. “Here, we can cross the border to check our land... and here we can live in our own houses,” said Georgette Blo.
Refugees want to be self-sufficient said Marselline Blé, who arrived in March, but to do that they need some basics. “We still have no cooking pots and don’t have enough plates to serve food from,” she said. “We don’t have enough clothes to put on.” Most Ivoirians lack sufficient clothing and many arrived without shoes.
A Liberian used clothing market salesman pours clothing onto mats at the entrance to the village, but most refugees cannot afford to buy his wares.
Driving to Janzon, it is clear why UNHCR hopes people move to camps - the mud road became virtually impassable after one moderate rain - and responding to needs in these conditions, across 50 villages in Grand Geddeh, is slow and difficult.
But in the long-term, it might be easier for agencies if people stay in villages, said Koen Henckaerts, head of EU humanitarian aid agency ECHO, as they will take more ownership in rebuilding their lives, rebuilding their own houses and producing some of their own food, if they keep their farms going.
UNHCR has recently shifted the status of Solo and Duogee refugee camps in Grand Geddeh from transitional to more permanent status, which means the tents each family was given will be replaced by semi-permanent shelters made out of bamboo, mud and plastic sheeting, according to UNHCR spokesperson Geoffrey Carliez. “As semi-permanent structures take up more land than tents, land-clearing is an operational priority,” he told IRIN.
In Solo refugee camp, some 15km from Zwedru, where 6,090 Ivoirians are sheltering, those who have been appointed jobs are pleased. Justin is a refugee coordinator who worked for NGO Caritas in Côte d’Ivoire. “I am happy to be working, though it would be nice to earn some small money,” he told IRIN.
Sitting beside him, Yvonne Shion told IRIN she used to work as a tailor in Guiglo. “If I could just get hold of a machine, I could start working again.”
Most refugees here have nothing but the food they are given - rice, oil and beans. Those who arrived with modest resources have set up stalls selling condiments in short supply - salt, sugar and pepper sauce.
In one corner of the camp, youths are playing football. In another, young children are in class. UNICEF and Save the Children have recently set up a temporary school in the camp, and are currently clearing a patch of forest to build a more permanent structure.
“When children have experienced trauma, school can bring them together and de-stress them, and help them to develop and return to normalcy,” education coordinator for Save the Children Khrishnakumer Palanisamy told IRIN.
Some 447 children are now enrolled in six primary grades. Justin Pouho was a retired teacher in Toulepleu but is now trying to control a class of around 30 rambunctious nine-year-olds. “We have to continue working. We are qualified. We saw the children suffering and we didn’t want them to live without learning,” he told IRIN.
“They are now adapting. At first many of the children were sitting around, looking pensive, stuck in their thoughts... Some were violent with their friends. Now they are starting to talk to us. We are seeing them start to play... They seem happier here.”
Many donors see education as lying outside of the traditional humanitarian response. ECHO, for instance, funds health, food and shelter support for refugees, but not education - but in surveys many refugees stress education as one of their top priorities, according to Save the Children.
Here, children learn the Ivoirian curriculum which the government sent to UNICEF. The school will run through the holidays to help children who missed school during the violence, to catch up.
No secondary school
But there is no funding as yet for a secondary school, leaving teenagers and youths with little to do. Michael Manhan, 18, who came to Solo with his aunt (he does not know where his parents are), told IRIN: “I try to find some small work to feed my aunt, but I have nothing else to do all day,” he told IRIN. “I’d like to study for my bac [the baccalaureate education qualification].”
Save the Children is asking the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other funders if they would consider funding secondary schools, but it looks “unlikely” that they would be able to set one up very soon, said Save the Children’s Palanisamy.
Aid agencies and donors now need to work out their longer-term strategies carefully, UNHCR protection associate Sianie Kolubah told IRIN. “The aid response has started to pick up and improve over the past two months. If this pace continues, some donors might see a reason to keep on assisting for some time.” UNHCR has submitted its plans and requests for funding to support refugees until the end of 2013, said Carliez. “We are currently finding medium to long-term solutions for the majority of refugees,” he told IRIN.
In the meantime, teachers at Solo camp’s school look forward to their first pay cheque, which is to arrive this month. As of 1 August they are to be paid Liberian teacher salaries - currently US$75-120 per month, though the government may soon raise this to $135.
“We have all been made equal here [in Solo],” said teacher, Bah. “We have all been lowered to the same level. Even government officials and people with important jobs are living in the same way, with the same-sized tent, using the same latrines.”
What helps each as they prepare to rebuild their lives, is the “warm welcome of their Liberian brothers and sisters”, and “the mutual respect that we all have for one another”, he said.