West Africa: Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees feel abandoned in Guinea

Published: 7/May/2010
Source: Pambazuka News

By Manuel Toledo

“Kountaya was one of the biggest refugee camps in West Africa,” Sheku said, pointing at the old buildings surrounded by the Guinean jungle. After a long pause, he added, somewhat nostalgic, “while UNHCR and the other agencies were here, we had schools and medical assistance; we had many cultural and sport events. I used to play basketball. But then they said that, since the war in Sierra Leone was over, we had no reason to be here. And they abandoned us.”

I had met Vincent “Sheku” Sawaneh in Faranah, a town in Southern Guinea, where he was staying with the brother of another Sierra Leonean refugee that he knew from the camp.

“The war may have ended in 2002 but it still affects our lives. How can I go back to a country where I have nothing left? How can people return to the places where their limbs were amputated or their relatives were killed? How will they feel when they meet in the streets the perpetrators of those atrocities? The killers and torturers now live freely in their same villages and towns, thanks to a general amnesty that was granted as part of the peace agreement only eight years ago,” Sheku told me.

“On the other hand, because I’ve spent most of my life in the camps, I cannot consider myself Guinean. I don’t belong here. We don’t have the same rights and whenever there’s a problem, the refugees are the usual suspects. Ideally, I’d like to go to a third country where I could go to a university and start a new life.” He proudly showed me his high school diploma, granted by the International Rescue Committee educational authorities. He also had certificates of attendance to courses on issues such as human rights, refugee law, HIV/Aids prevention, drug abuse, and understanding trauma. Although he does not have access to libraries or the internet, he is extremely knowledgeable of current international affairs. He spends hours on end listening to the BBC World Service and other foreign radio stations, and he dreams of the day when he will be able to continue his studies.

Sheku calculates that he is around 26 years old. “I must have been 7 or 8 when the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) came to my village, in the north of Sierra Leone, and started killing people. I remember it clearly because it was the first time I heard the sound of machine guns. I managed to escape with my uncle and his wife, but my parents and my brothers were captured in the bush. Later I heard that they all had been killed. Someone told me that two of my brothers were shot dead at the same time because they refused to have sex with their own mother. My aunt died shortly after we reached Guinea and my uncle went back to Sierra Leone, and I believe that he is also dead”.

I was told that there are more than 600 refugees still living in Kountaya. The majority of them are Sierra Leoneans who, like Sheku, have refused for various reasons to return to their country of origin or to take part in the official process of integration into the Guinean society. Many of them regard as cautionary tales the cases of other former refugees who volunteered to go back to Sierra Leone or to move to Guinean cities and later came back to the camp because they did not feel welcome elsewhere.

“I went to live in the Guinean town of Kissidougou but it didn’t take me long to realise that as a refugee I wouldn’t have any favourable conditions. For months, I’ve been ill and almost starving and didn’t get any of the help I had been promised if I accepted to integrate. I couldn’t even communicate, as I only speak Mende, a language from the south of Sierra Leone, and people in Kissidougou speak Malinké, Fula, Kissi or French. That’s why I decided to come back to the camp. At least here we are all in the same boat”, said Aruna Kallen, a man in his 50s that looked very sick and frail. One could almost count the ribs on his chest.

Another man, Martin Sahr Musa, 63, told me that one of his brothers had gone back to Sierra Leone and had been victimised by members of the rival clan who are now in power in his village. According to him, they are former RUF rebels. “He had to escape again and now lives in Liberia. I am too old to go through that once more. I have an additional problem: I’m a Christian but some members of my family in Sierra Leone practise juju (witchcraft), and I believe they’re involved in secret societies that perform human sacrifices. I don’t want to have anything to do with them.” Coincidentally, just two weeks before I had met in Sierra Leone the district attorney of Kenema –a city not far from where Mr. Musa comes from- and he told me that he had just managed to get three people sentenced to death because of their involvement in ritual killings.

According to Omaru B. Kamara, one of the 22 members of a committee chosen by the refugees to manage the camp since UNHCR left, there are also around 26 Liberian families in Kountaya. “From 2001 to 2005 there were thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees here but in 2006 UNCHR started to relocate the Liberians to a camp called Kouankan, in Macenta, Guinea. The Liberians who are still here are in the same conditions as the Sierra Leoneans or perhaps worse: they have yet to start the process of integration. Guinean representatives of the UN came here in December 2009 and told the Liberian refugees that they were going to give them some help before integrating them into the local communities, but they haven’t been back”, he said.

I met a Liberian woman, Finda Kamara, 55 years old, who told me that for more than two months she has been suffering a terrible abdominal pain that moves from one side of her body to the other but has been unable to get any medical assistance. When I visited her, she was lying on a mattress that was stamped with the name of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Another member of the camp committee, Fahindo M. Briman, said that the nearest medical centre is about 14 kilometres away, but that it normally only assists pregnant women. “They usually have to walk all the way there and back because we don’t have our own transport or the means to pay a local motor driver to take them”, he told me.

For many of the Kountaya refugees it is an odyssey to go to the nearest town, Kissidougou, located some 80 kilometres away. In addition to the dismal conditions of the dirt track, which are exacerbated during the rainy season, they have to pay huge amounts of money for the ride. A driver from Kissidougou, who used to go regularly to the camp during the UNHCR days, told me that the prices have gone up exponentially because, as the refugees now do not have any money, if he takes someone to the camp he would have to go back to town with no passengers.

Many of the refugees have a stronger reason not to leave the camp: they do not possess any valid identification documents. Although most of them still have a letter (“Certificat de Reconnaissance”) from the Guinean government that acknowledges their status as refugees, and some have a Carte d’Identité pour les Refugiés given to them by UNHCR, they say that the local authorities have stopped recognising these documents as IDs. As a result, if they have to travel even for medical reasons they run the risk of having to pay exorbitant sums in bribes to the Guinean police and military, especially at the ubiquitous checkpoints that have spread throughout the country like a cancer.

I have been fortunate enough to travel by land almost all over the world, and I had never encountered the levels of corruption that I have just seen on the Guinean roads. Although I had my British passport and my yellow fever certificate in order, plus a visiting card from a high-ranking official of the Guinean Ministry of Tourism, I was harassed on numerous occasions and even threatened a few times by drunken soldiers because I refused to pay them bribes. The local people, and especially the few refugees with whom I was travelling by public transport, lack the protection of a foreign passport or a ministerial contact and cannot escape paying the bribes.

I was told in Kountaya that the only camp residents that have passports are the Sierra Leoneans who accepted the offer to integrate into the Guinean society, and later came back. Nobody seems to have UNHCR travel documents or even to know that they exist. Furthermore, many of them now have a letter from the Commission National pour l’Intégration et le Suivi des Réfugiés (CNISR – National Commission for the Integration and the Follow-Up Care of Refugees) notifying them that they are no longer recognized by the Guinean government as refugees. The letters are dated “2009” but do not state the day or month when the decision was taken.

According to Fahindo M. Briman, “in 2008 UN representatives came here and gave some of the refugees a form in which they had to explain why they didn’t want to go back to Sierra Leone or to integrate into the local community. Many other refugees were away when the officials arrived and they were not given these forms. A year later the functionaries came back –unannounced- to say that all the applications had been rejected. Although the CNISR letters they brought said that people had seven days to appeal, the officials were here only for two days, from the 12th to the 14th of November 2009. About 180 family heads appealed. They were not given any legal advice on to how to fill the forms. Then the CNISR representatives left and we haven’t heard from them again.”

The refugees who were not at the camp at the time complain that they missed their only chance to appeal. On the other hand, those who did not fill the original form in 2008 seem to have no idea what their legal status is. They still have the Certificat de Reconnaissance which says that they are refugees.

Another group claiming they are in a legal limbo are the former refugees who had gone back to Sierra Leone and later decided to return to the camp. Some of them have a small piece of paper, apparently given to them by UNHCR in 2007, with a ticket number, their names and, handwritten, the numbers of their original refugee cards. According to them, this is the only identification they have. Some of them believe that they are being considered again as asylum-seekers. They say that they have not heard from UNHCR in the last three years.

The refugee leaders said that they are also worried about the many children who were born in the camp and have no papers whatsoever. “At some point the Guinean authorities came and said that they could issue birth certificates for a fee. Parents would have to pay 2.000 francs (.30 US$) for kids up to five years old and 5.000 francs (.94US$) for older children. Although that may seem a small amount, it should be remembered that many of these people cannot even afford to buy medicines for their children, let alone birth certificates,” Mr. Briman said.

“It breaks my heart to see that all these children are growing up without a proper education,” added Denis F. Musa, a qualified teacher who lives in the camp. “There are several teachers here but we have to work as farmers to survive. Our lands have been overexploited and are no longer fertile, so we have to work very hard to feed our families. Luckily we have good relations with our host community, the Telikoro village, and some of our children go to a local school three or four kilometres away from here but they’re learning very little because they’re taught in French and at the camp we only speak the Sierra Leonean languages and English.”

Another refugee, Joseph Bundor, said: “We are begging the international community to help us to get out of here. We don’t feel safe in this country, especially in the current climate of political violence. Some of the Guinean authorities say that we don’t want to go back to Sierra Leone because we’re former rebels. In reality we had to escape from the rebels that now roam free all over our country. Why have so many refugees been abandoned like this for nearly five years? We were given three options: to integrate, to repatriate or to stay as refugees. We were told that we were not forced to take any of these options. But now we feel that they’re playing a waiting game in order not to fulfil their international obligations. In the meantime, we’re nearly starving and many of us are getting sick.”

As I was leaving the camp, three women ran in front of our motorbike waiving some papers. “No, auntie,” Sheku told the oldest of them, “he is not from UNHCR. He’s just a tourist that wanted to see how we live.” They looked sad and disappointed and went back to their daily chores in the former primary school building that is now their home.


* Manuel Toledo works as a journalist for the BBC World Service. In January 2010 he took a career break in order to travel in Africa for a year.

Themes: Nationality and Refugees
Regions: Guinea
Year: 2010