Up to half the 150,000 Liberian refugees who fled to Guinea to escape their country's 14-year civil war have already gone home, according to UN officials.
Many did not bother to wait for the UN refugee agency UNHCR to start its official repatriation programme in October last year.
Soon after the peace agreement was signed in August 2003, they spontaneously trekked across the border to see what conditions were like back home and came back to report to their friends and families.
Many then collected their wives and children and moved back home to rebuild their ruined villages and replant their abandoned fields.
But others have been frightened by tales of fragile security, ruined schools and health centres and hostile strangers who have moved into their houses and occupied their land.
Even though the United Nations is now encouraging them to go home, they are reluctant to abandon the security of camp life.
A third of the 24,000 refugees living at Laine camp, the largest in Guinea, are still reluctant to make the move, according to camp leaders.
“There are a couple of reasons why those refugees do not want to return right now," said Marcy Roberts, secretary general of the camp's refugee committee. "They are afraid that the security situation in the country is not conducive for their return and almost all of the country’s infrastructure, like schools and health centres, are not functional.”
The UN declared this week that 13 of Liberia's 15 counties were now safe for refugees to return to, but after all those years of uncontrolled killing, many still have a deep-seated fear of going back.
“Often, the UNHCR comes out to encourage refugees to return home, reporting that the security conditions are relatively normal and disarmament has completed and that UN troops are deployed all over the country, but the refugees themselves are still afraid that those who perpetrated abuses against them still remain in Liberia with immunity”, Roberts said.
"Mere pronouncements of areas being declared safe for return is not enough," she said, surrounded by a group of 200 camp residents who are resisting repatriation.
Refugees sceptical over security claims
Roberts claimed there 8,000 refugees in the camp who wanted to stay put for the time being.
"Those 8,000 are saying that there often exist reports of ex-fighters rioting and looting in Liberia since the deployment of UN peacekeepers," Roberts said. "They have made their position known to the UNHCR that they would prefer to be resettled in another country…how can you return to area where security problems still exist and there is not enough housing and infrastructure to keep you there."
Mary Kennedy, who has lived in refugee camps for the past 15 years, told IRIN: “It was war that brought us here in Guinea and those of our fellow Liberians who took up arms against we the innocent civilians are still moving around in Liberia freely. There is a high possibility for them to do the same to us again.”
“Worst of all, they still occupy our homes we left," Kennedy, a former school teacher from Nimba country, said.
"It is difficult to put them out because they have been living there for years. If one insists that they should leave our homes, they may even kill you and there would be no legal recourse."
Some refugees have heard it all before
The UN first encouraged the Liberian refugees in Guinea to return home in 1996 after a shaky peace agreement paved the way for elections that brought warlord Charles Taylor to power as president in 1997. But two years later the civil war started up again and many of the returnees found themselves once more fleeing for their lives.
“We were in Guinea before and were encouraged to return to Liberia after the first civil war ended in 1996," said Roland Paye, who has twice been uprooted from his home by conflict.
"Some us went back home after the 1997 elections, but we later fled back into camps in Guinea when fighting started in 1999. So we are still observing the situation”, he said.
“I do not want to be uprooted from my country three times, because of fighting," agreed Brigitte Anderson, who sells second hand clothing in the Laine camp, a sprawling settlement of palm thatched huts 80 km north of Nzerekore, the main town in the Forest Region of Southeast Guinea.
"I personally would prefer to remain in this camp or in Guinea where it is safer, than to return to Liberia and flee another civil war”, Anderson said.
“If we see that the peace that is now in Liberia is sustained after the elections, maybe some of us would return home," she conceded, referring to parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for October. A new elected head of state is due to take office in January 2006.
"The UNHCR has told us that the country is safe, but they can not force us to return”, Anderson stressed.
UNHCR reckoned there were 150,000 Liberian refugees living in Guinea at the start of 2004, but UNHCR officials at Laine told IRIN privately they reckoned there were only 75,000 to 90,000 left now.
No-one knows for sure because many of the Liberians living in eastern Guinea have never been officially registered as refugees.
Jomo Yavasia, the head of the Liberian refugee committee in Laine , told IRIN there were more than 3,000 people living in this legal limbo in the camp who were now seeking assistance to go home.
"We have 3,336 refugees living in these camps who do not have a ration card and this makes it impossible for them to be considered as refugees. They are refugees who came spontaneously in this camp, but were not registered,” he said.
UNHCR officials at Laine acknowledged this problem.
“We are reviewing the status of those Liberians who fall into this category," one of them told IRIN.
"It is not just the Laine camp, but other camps around the Guinea Forest Region as well," the UNHCR official said. "All we want is that only legitimate refugees benefit from this repatriation. Often we have people wanting to take advantage of boarding UNHCR trucks to travel to Liberia free of charge but they are not refugees.”
He also noted that people could not drift back and fro across the border and expect to retain their official refugee status, with all the benefits of food, shelter, healthcare, education and training that this confers.
“Most times, we found people leaving the camp for Liberia and returning a month after," the official said. "Once a person leaves the camp and returns to his country, he automatically loses his refugee status. We are still carrying out a verification process and we will make sure that those refugees wanting to return are assisted in keeping with our policy."
Some Liberians have set up businesses in Guinea
Not all the Liberians who fled to Guinea have chosen to live in the UNHCR's official camps. They have drifted into Nzerekore and other towns and some have settled down and set up profitable businesses.
Mohammed Kiazolu, for example, became a money exchanger in Nzerekore. He told IRIN that he now feels more comfortable living in Guinea than going home to a ruined country undergoing a painful recovery from civil war.
“Liberia is our home, we can not forget that, but now I am better doing business here than in Liberia. I do not want to return home now, because I am not used to the business climate in my own country. Maybe after the elections, when investors are flowing in the country, I would return home finally,” he said.
“Kiazolu added, “Here in Guinea, I make about US$50 profit daily from foreign exchange. Why should I return home when I can not imagine making such profit there?"
UN officials made clear that such people will not be moved against their will.
“We have a policy not to force refugees to return home," one UN official in Nzerekore told IRIN. "All we tell them is that the security conditions in their country are improving or are alright for return. We know the concerns raised by those refugees are legitimate, they have the rights to return or remain."
Liberia is always 'home'
But whatever their doubts or fears, most of the Liberian refugees in Guinea, do want to go home eventually. And many are impatient to leave right now.
Sixty year-old old Morris Sowah told IRIN that he desperately wanted to go back to Liberia.
“In Guinea here, it is difficult to make a decent life in a refugee camp," he said. "We received reports from our relatives back home that things are returning to normal and that is why I want to go home now…but the UNHCR is still telling us to wait”.
Indeed, the process is proceeding slowly.
The UNHCR said this week that about 100,000 of the 350,000 Liberians who fled abroad during the civil war had gone home spontaneously after the peace agreement was signed.
But it added that over the past four months, only 6,500 had been repatriated from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana and Liberia under the UNHCR's official repatriation programme.