The Lives Of Ivory Coast Refugees And The Liberians Who Welcomed Them

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.

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