“We walked two days in the jungle to cross the border”: An Ivorian refugee’s account

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is organizing the transfer of Ivorian refugees from border villages to a refugee camp in Bossou, Guinea. Photo taken by the HCR in Nzoo-Guela on December 10, 2010.

 
Nearly 6,200 Ivorians have fled the Ivory Coast to the neighbouring countries of Libera and Guinea following the disputed November 28 presidential election. Our Observer left his hometown of Yéalé, in the West of the country, and found refuge in a UN-run camp in southern Guinea.
 
According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), nearly 6,000 Ivorians have crossed the border into Liberia over the past week, while 200 more fled to Guinea. No influx of Ivorian refugees has been observed in Burkina Faso, Ghana or Mali, the three other West African countries that share a border with the Ivory Coast.
 
These refugees decided to flee the climate of violence and insecurity gripping the country in the face-off between aspiring presidents Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. The first asylum seekers, from the east of the country, began arriving in Liberia on November 29. Another group began trickling into Guinea on December 10, after crossing the mountainous border by foot. Both countries have granted these migrants the status of political refugees, victims of human rights abuses by armed men both from Gbagbo’s and Ouattara’s camp.
 
At first, the refugees were scattered across various border villages and taken in by locals. UNHCR teams then proceeded to register the new arrivals and distribute blankets, jerricans of gasoline and kerosene lamps. The agency works with local authorities to transfer the refugees to centralised transit camps. One such camp in Bossou, Guinea is now home to over 200 Ivorians. The HCR logistics headquarters in Copenhaguen estimates it can provide for up to 30,000 refugees. 
Ivorian refugees in a Guinean border village. Photo taken by the UNHCR.
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"Men came to loot our gardens at night. They ravaged everything and stole our cattle."

Antonin, an Ivorian schoolteacher, fled the village of Yéalé in the west of Ivory Coast, a region controlled by armed forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara. He is now in the UN run camp of Bossou.
 
Some villagers were beaten by rebels, some of which were dressed in civilian clothes. They never shot anyone but they were brutal and terrorized us. At night, armed men came to loot our gardens. They ravaged everything and stole our cattle. Several other family heads and myself decided we could not remain in the village in those conditions.
 
“We walked for two full days in the jungle.”

We left on Wednesday, December 8, in the late afternoon, by small groups. We were rushed, so all I took with me was my ID card and my birth certificate. We walked for two full days in the jungle. Some headed to the border village of Nzoo-Guela, others to Nyon. Sometimes we ran into other migrants.
 
I left with my wife and my two young children, but was forced to leave one of my sons behind in Nzoo-Guela because he was sick. I know he’s safe there and being looked after, and I hope the UN people will be able to bring him to Bossou soon.
 
Since we’ve been here we’ve had enough to eat every day and a roof over our heads. Children can play safely outside. I can’t thank the UNHCR enough for setting up places like this for refugees. I don’t think I can return to the Ivory Coast until the situation there calms down. Right now I’m trying to set up a small school for the children in the camp. Life must go on.”
 
Food distribution in Bossou's transit centre. Photo taken by the UNHCR. 

"These refugees, mostly women and children, arrived by foot and carried no belongings. They were exhausted and thirsty, but otherwise unhurt."

Astrid Castelei is in charge of operations for the UNHCR in southern Guinea. She and her team have been organsing the aid effort for Ivorian refugees in a transit centre in Bossou, a village in the Guinean region of Nzérékoré.
 
Local Guinean authorities informed us of the arrival of Ivorians in two border villages, Nzoo-Guela and Nyon. They told us they had fled their villages because they felt threatened by gangs of armed men.
 
The refugees are mostly women and children. They arrived by foot and carried virtually no belongings. This specific group comes from Yéalé, one of the only pro-Gbagbo villages in a region controlled by forces loyal to Ouattara. But the refugees in Liberia are mainly Ouattara supporters.
 
“Most of these refugees are farmers from small villages. They are worried about losing their land.”

Most of these refugees are farmers from small villages. Some have family in Guinea. Others try not to go too far from the border and their village. They hope to return there from time to time to check on their crops. They are afraid their fields will be looted, and are worried about losing their land during the political crisis.
 
We decided to gather all the refugees that arrived in Nyon and Nzoo-Guela in a single transit centre. Guinean authorities have put an old elementary school building in Bossou at our disposal. We work with local NGOs and the Red Cross to make sure the refugees get three warm meals per day. These are ‘prima facie’ refugees, that is to say that they are fleeing their country for obvious reasons. For now, we’re just dealing with their emergency needs. If in the long term they decide to remain in Guinea, then we will work with authorities to help them integrate society fully and earn an autonomous living.
 
Astrid Castelei with a group of Ivorian refugees that arrived in the villages of Nyon et à Nzoo-Guela, en Guinea. These refugees were transferred to a transit centre in Bossou.

Post written with France 24 journalist Peggy Bruggière. 
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