When thousands of refugees fled in crisis to Liberia, the country welcomed them--just as the Ivory Coast had helped Liberians during their own war.
“The Force Nouvelles will invade the South in the next few days,” Celestine Oundo, an Ivory Coast refugee, told me last February. We were sitting on benches outside his host’s house in the Liberian border town of Buutuo. The sun was setting and mosquitoes buzzed about. It was the spring of 2011, and I was in Africa covering the ongoing tension between the two countries after a civil war in the Ivory Coast sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to Liberia.
The Ivory Coast conflict began in late 2010, when then-president Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat when opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was elected president, leaving the country in a confused and violent political stalemate. A complex mix of ethnic and colonial identities underlay the deep divide. The Forces Nouvelles de Côte d'Ivoire, a rebel group, controlled the North while Gbagbo rallied his base around the idea that Northerners were not true Ivorians. By the time Gbagbo was captured in April 2011, thousands of people had been killed and many more raped and abused. Countless more fled over the border to Liberia, who welcomed the masses into their small country—reciprocity for the hospitality the Ivorian people showed Liberians during their civil war.
More than a year later Liberia is still grappling with the aftereffects of the overwhelming influx of refugees. As a media trainer with Journalists for Human Rights, I spent a year working with Liberian journalists reporting on the crisis, and had the opportunity to speak to many of the refugees living near the border, trying to survive.
That evening at dusk, I pondered Oundo’s prediction. In a crisis people are prone to wild claims, and the longer the political standoff in the Ivory Coast kept up, the more rumours I heard and the more sceptical I became. But Oundo spoke with authority: A few days prior at his home in Binhouye, on the Ivorian side, his brother had called to tell him about clashes taking place in the buffer zone between rebels and government soldiers. The zone, just north of where he lived, was a U.N.-monitored ceasefire line that had separated the rebel-controlled North from the South for several years. The call confirmed what he feared: The standoff was turning into open war. They had to leave.
“In our community we know who votes for so-and-so candidate,” Oundo told me. An accountant from a town on the government side of the U.N. line, he had voted for Ouattara, the rebel-backed Northerner and Muslim. Ouattara supporters across the South were facing a campaign of harassment, including rumors of disappearances and mass graves in the economic capital of Abidjan. Oundo’s family was already a target. A rebel invasion, he figured, could mean their deaths.
The morning of his brother’s call, Oundo put his plan into action. Balancing as many people as would fit on his Chinese motorbike—mostly older relatives and children—he drove them two miles to the border, where he dropped them and turned around for more. After the crossing—two small barges on the Cavalla River, one painted the colors of the Ivorian flag and the other the colors of Liberia—the clan made the short walk up to Buutuo.
This extended family was, at the time, among already 50,000 Ivorian refugees who had crossed over to Liberia since the disputed election. That number would later spike to more than 150,000 as the fighting got worse.
Oundo’s family knew exactly where to head. Alfred Latoe, a Liberian, is the deputy chief of Buutuo, an affable older man with greying temples and a collection of mud-brick houses. From about 1989 until 2003, Liberia was going through its own series of violent upheavals. Just as Oundo did, Latoe kept an eye on the situation and when things got hot, ferried his family over to Binhouye to look for shelter, often for months at a time. In 1989, 1994, 1995 and 1996 Oundo’s family played host to Liberians—including Latoe. It went without saying that the Liberians would return the favor.
There’s no exact data on how many Ivorian refugees were staying with the Liberians they had hosted from previous conflicts, but in the five months I covered this story I heard many similar stories. Even more impressive, perhaps, are the thousands of Liberian villagers—many of whom had very little to give—that provided relief to complete strangers for months at a time as underfunded, bureaucratic government and U.N. agencies scrambled to catch up.
The speculation on Monrovia radio talk shows was that the refugees would be destabilizing. Local shock jocks warned about the prevalence of HIV among Ivorians. Others warned about different factions recruiting young Liberians to fight. A Daily Observer report, "Gbarnga: Single Women Cause Stir among Couples,” quoted a “worried” Liberian woman saying “We will not sit down here and see these women destroy our homes. We will ensure that our husbands would not fall in the hands of these hungry refugee women.”
Despite this sensationalism, when I accompanied journalists from FrontPage Africa to survey opinions on the street—in tea houses, college campuses and taxi stands—the mood was overwhelmingly welcoming. Regular Liberians, the majority of them former refugees or internally displaced people, by-and-large felt a deep connection to the plight of the Ivorians. Seeing the reporters as a way to speak to those in power, many interview subjects pleaded with government and international donors to send relief to the border.
Around the time Liberia gained peace in 2003, after 14 years of on and off war, the much larger country to its southeast, Ivory Coast, was coming apart. It was actually Guinea, the country to Liberia’s north, that everyone predicted would go to war at the end of 2010. There, two major ethnic groups were competing for state power through polls and war-jaded Liberians were wary. My friends along the Guinean border told me of U.N. officials driving around surveying land for refugee camps. The vote was tense but violence was minimal and Guineans came away with their first democratically elected president.
But that December in Ivory Coast, crisis hit. The former World Bank number two, Alassane Ouattara, claimed a narrow victory in the national vote count—only to have the results declared fraudulent by the regime. The two men were both declared president by their respective constituencies: Ouattara, a Muslim northerner backed by France and Laurent Gbagbo, a southerner backed by the Ivorian Army.
“Two presidents” became an ominous phrase repeated to us by the refugees making their way overland into Northeastern Liberia. The first time I went to the border was a month after the vote, in early January 2011. The refugees then were mostly grandparents, disabled people, nursing mothers, and children, leaving the able-bodied to tend to the farms across the river. Many of them were Gbagbo supporters escaping rebel-held areas, but most seemed to have no particular affiliation. The deadlock was a month old and I was with David Kolleh, a reporter from FrontPage Africa. He was young, energetic and eager for a scoop. It wouldn’t be hard. Despite the scope of the potential humanitarian crisis, very few reporters had been here yet.
“Since she was born she has never heard of two presidents and so she decided to leave,” Kolleh translated the words of Jeanette Blepea, a Yacuba-speaking woman with large cataracts over her eyes.
Jaqueline Mabiah, who we found lying outside on a bamboo mat, sick from a tumour in her stomach, described armed robbers coming to her house and cleaning her out shortly after the elections. It wasn’t politically motivated she said, but people use confusion as cover to commit crimes.
As we walked around the village interviewing refugees—a trilingual conversation in Gio/Yacuba, Liberian English, and French—Kolleh told me about his own displacement as a child during the first Liberian civil war. His family fled to Guinea, spending days on forest paths hiding from militias and going hungry. It was there, first at a refugee camp and later in Conakry, that he learned French. “This” he said gesturing to the village, “is not new to me.”
Outside its capital city, Liberia is not a densely populated place. This small country, only 3.5 million people, has the largest remaining stands of West African rainforest. Most of its infrastructure, basic to begin with, was either destroyed during its own war or disintegrated from years of neglect. Many of the people who live along the Ivorian border are subsistence farmers. The influx of 50,000 refugees into this remote region was a major event; that it would later grow to 150,000 was unthinkable.
In Logatuo, Kolleh and I found a town of Liberians taking in refugees by the hundreds. The chief, Victor Wolie, directed groups of Liberian youth fixing up old huts and constructing new ones in order to house the new arrivals. Women performed spontaneous welcoming ceremonies with drums and palm fronds while a volunteer from the Norwegian Refugee Council registered each new arrival for the U.N. database.
We were shown mud-brick buildings, usually home to a family of six, now sleeping 17 people. During the day, refugees who could work were taken by the Liberians to work on their garden plots. Despite the extra hands and the rumored Ivorian green thumb, staple foods were quickly running out. There was a lot of hope that the World Food Program or the Liberian government would start sending aid, but in the meantime meals became smaller. The first big food donation, in an expression of Pan-African solidarity, was from Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi in Libya. A few months later he would be dealing with his own political crisis.
Chief Wolie took Kolleh and me to see where the refugees were crossing over, a 20-minute walk through underbrush and towering hardwoods to the steep bank of the Cavalla River. A couple trees had fallen, creating two well-worn paths across the river. One was up high, 10 feet above the river. It stretched from the top of the Ivorian side to the Liberian side. The other was partially submerged by the water. It was the dry season now, and the river was low.
“That’s cocoa,” the chief told us as he pointed across the river. While the Liberian side was forest, the opposite bank had clearly been cultivated. Cocoa is Ivory Coast’s major export—a resource that once had the country on the brink of middle-income status. As we watched, two women, one older and another with a baby on her back, inched their way across the lower log toward us.
“Refugees,” said the chief.
Safely on the Liberian side, the older woman approached us holding a plastic bag with her national ID card inside. Her name was Dona Yvonne Gueu. She had been living in Liberia for weeks already but the lack of food was a problem. Along with her friend, she had crossed back into Ivory Coast early that morning to glean food from the abandoned farms and gardens. This was a routine of theirs, crossing over to forage for cassava and vegetables, avoiding the towns where soldiers might see them, and heading back to Liberia by the afternoon.
Ivory Coast is much wealthier and much larger than Liberia. There are 20 million people living in the country. The cocoa industry there is immense, supplying 35 percent of the world’s supply. While much of the international press was busy reporting about the Arab spring, business journalists were warning of spikes in the cost of cocoa due to the Ivorian crisis. One of the methods Ouattara used to eventually break the political deadlock was to call for a cocoa embargo on the country. The U.S. and the EU complied, crippling Gbagbo’s ability to pay his army.
A short drive from where the women crossed the Cavalla is the remains of a bridge that collapsed a few years back, its mangled steel frame becoming the support for a newer wooden footbridge. A shabby Liberian customs house sits on one side of it and a U.N. peacekeeping base on the other, home to a platoon of gregarious Bangladeshi troops with a sign that says, “Do not cross this, you may be engaged with fire.”
That afternoon we saw a curious site. On the Ivorian side, a group of young men were unloading large sacks of cocoa from the backs of massive transport trucks. One by one, they heaved these 150-pound sacks onto their backs and crossed the sketchy bridge, then loaded the cocoa into a Liberian truck.
In the middle of the crowd of laborers was a burly Lebanese man in a trucker hat. “They call me A.K.,” he told me. Smiling, he explained, “We are exporting cocoa from the rebel area. Business is better than ever.”
The international ban on Ivorian cocoa meant an opportunity for him to smuggle rebel cocoa out of Ivory Coast and ship it from Monrovia as Liberian cocoa. To many, conflict means money.
As cocoa was leaking out of the Ivory Coast, rumors were swirling about Liberians crossing the other way and joining secret death squads aligned with Gbagbo and the Ivorian government. The U.N. officials I talked to treated this as true and the Force Nouvelles had closed the Northern border in attempt to stop it.
A young acquaintance of mine in Monrovia filled me in on what was happening. Men, often former civil war leaders, were appearing in Monrovia neighborhoods with large transport trucks. They were offering $500 to $1,000 if the men would leave the same day for the Ivory Coast. If anyone asked, they were laborers heading to a rubber plantation.
As the crisis escalated, The New York Times reported on “English speaking” death squads roaming opposition neighborhoods in Abdijan. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, vowed to stop them. Rumors spread that after the Ivorian war had ended: The Liberian mercenaries would regroup under the leadership of a former guerrilla soldier and invade Liberia.
A couple days after meeting Oundo in Buutuo I was back in Monrovia, listening to reports of a fire fight on the Ivorian side of the river. There had been shooting all night and rocket propelled grenades had even fallen on the Liberian side. The Force Nouvelles had finally launched their offensive and were on their way to invade Abidjan. I called Oundo. “We’re all fine,” he told me, but the fighting meant refugees were crossing over in much greater numbers.
While back at the FrontPage offices with Kolleh and our colleague Mae Azango, watching the news from Abidjan on Al Jazeera, I remarked, “We missed the fighting by a day. If we’d stayed on the border it would have been good for the story.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” Azango said without looking at me. “You wanted to see guns? I’m so, so sorry. You should have been here during the war. There were plenty guns then. And bombs. I’m so sorry for you. So sorry.”
She shook her head and I felt stupid. She had escaped the Liberian war by heading to the Ivory Coast where she’d worked in seedy bars getting harassed by U.N. peacekeepers. She would go on to write some of the best articles in the Liberian press about the Ivorian crisis, interviewing rebels and being among the first reporters to tell the story of returning Liberian mercenaries.
On my second-to-last trip to the border, I organized a trip for 12 reporters. It started poorly. The off-road vehicle we’d ordered turned out to be a minivan. An eight-hour drive later, barrelling down a dirt road somewhere in Nimba, the driver announced the brakes had gone. Not to worry, he told me, this happens all the time. We’ll just slow down for a bit until they come back online.
We arrived at the Toe’s Town border crossing, surprising the elite Liberian police unit manning the post. As the journalists peppered the commander with questions I walked down the hill to the bridge to see if I could photograph the soldiers on the other side of the river. An officer came running down the hill after me. “I beg, step back. They will shoot you,” he yelled.
At the Toe’s Town transfer center, the first stop for most refugees arriving in this part of Liberia, the tone was very different from a month before. The rebels had pushed through the area adjacent to us, stomping government troops on their way to the sea. In their wake, different militias, both Ivorian and Liberian, had decided to settle scores, and suddenly the thing everyone had feared was happening.
The refugees we talked to in Toe’s Town were Guerre, an ethnic group thought to be allies to the President. They described watching people get shot, described watching their house burning, described carrying the wounded through the forest. I spent some time playing with some children who told me they had come all the way from Abidjan—a city, the U.N. was reporting, that was in the midst of a 300,000-person exodus as the rebels besieged Gbagbo in his presidential palace.
In the brakeless minivan headed back to Monrovia it was mayhem. We were all tired and dehydrated. People started arguing. The driver we’d hired was pissed at me for being angry at him for the brake failure and he was compensating with manic driving. I turned on the BBC World Service.
The news crackled to life and we heard the voice of Andrew Harding, a reporter on the opposite side of the border from us in the town of Duekoukoue. Everyone in the car went quiet. He described the aftermath of a massacre, mostly Guerre speakers. Their bodies were being picked up by the Red Cross one by one out of ditches and overgrown fields. Each side blamed the other.
A few days after that we watched on TV as French troops entered Abidjan on the side of the rebels, firing on President Gbagbo compound with gunships and dragging the dishevelled Hawaiian-shirt-wearing president out of his hiding place. It felt silly, and sad.
The next day Pierre, a refugee in Toe’s Town, called me to say it wasn’t finished. Over 100 new refugees had entered their camp that day. There were 200 the day before. The arrivals were from some of the hardest hit towns: Guiglo, Toulepleu, Blolequin, Dekouekoue. They had been hiding in the bush for weeks and were sick and hungry. They only discovered that Gbagbo was captured when the rebels started shooting in the air.