Liberia: Withering Voinjama

A rebel from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia executes William Weah, a student, on Aug. 3, 1990. Taylor became president in 1997 (Photo: AFP).

Once upon a time, there was a lively, booming county in Liberia called Lofa, with the sprawling town called Voinjama as its political and economic center. It was a vibrant town. It was a lively commercial enclave. Its people were enterprising. Its agriculture was rapidly expanding. It hosted several European agricultural and other projects. Schools were multiplying. But this was all once upon a time. Voinjama, as most parts of Lofa County, has virtually disappeared.

Recent reports from nongovernmental organizations detail the population, once numbering over 400,000, dying in deep forests and around other parts of Lofa. Many are sick and hungry. Thousands more are fleeing into Guinea.

Charles Bennie, [the Holland-based spokesman of the rebel group] Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, has just returned from a tour of Voinjama, his first time in that part of Liberia. “There is nothing in Voinjama to reconstruct. The town is finished. The fighting was heavy. There is not a single town standing when you enter Liberia from the Guinean border until you reach Voinjama. There are a lot of people in the forests. Every time they hear voices, they run deeper into the deep forest. They are afraid of people. They live on wild fruits and roots. People in the forests are afraid each time they see another human being or hear the voices because of their experience with government soldiers.

“While in Voinjama, our men brought four of the people out from the forest. One woman had a two-month-old baby. With them was a very old lady without clothes. They were frightened until our men gave them food, clothing, and assurances of safety. The woman with the child said [Liberia’s President Charles] Taylor’s soldiers whisked her husband away with other men. He has never been seen or heard from. The situation is horrible. There is nothing to reconstruct in Voinjama.”

Bennie said the triangular border between Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone remains “very dangerous. The Guinea dissidents and the RUF [Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone] are in parts of Foya Kamah. Our men are in other parts. Periodically, they cause trouble and we push them back.”

He said fighting is continuing and there are pockets of resistance “here and there.” He said many of the “Lofa Vigilantes” linked to the late François Massaquoi have been cut off and are roaming around the forests. He said they have lost links with government troops. “We have been trying to rescue those we can find.”

The precarious nature of life in this once agricultural heartland for the three countries is further indicated by the Sierra Leone government’s recent declaration of most chiefdoms in the country as safe for the return of refugees, except chiefdoms bordering Liberia and Guinea.

Relief agencies have been ringing alarm bells in recent weeks. UNHCR [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] spokeswoman Delphine Marie says this insecure situation within Liberia has prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring Guinea. She says people have been crossing the officially closed border in groups of 100-150 a day.

“Some of them who arrived recently had left Liberia even around Christmas time or in January, meaning they have been walking through the bush for months,” she said. “And some of them arrived in very bad states of malnutrition, also [suffering from] skin diseases and very, very famished and exhausted.” The BBC quoted Marie as saying this upsurge in Liberia “is threatening the balance of the region, including Sierra Leone.…A new influx of refugees could further destabilize the process and even after the elections could destabilize the local population.”

The UNHCR says there are now more than 70,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea, and more than 80,000 Sierra Leonean refugees. The agency said groups of up to 150 Liberians were crossing the border each day. It said some were in extremely poor physical condition, after having marched for weeks before reaching safety in Guinea. Among the new arrivals were former Liberian refugees who had previously been repatriated from Guinea.

The Gabonese radio [station] Africa No. 1 says some 8,000 people have just arrived in two refugee camps in southern Guinea, with the influx meeting refugee workers unprepared. It said, “Dozens of refugees continue to arrive in the prefectures located along the border with Liberia and in the transit zones of Lola, Yalenzou, and Nzérékoré, and more significantly in Dikya. Aid workers and the few Guinean authorities available in these areas are currently identifying the displaced people in order to relocate them to new camps in Massanta and Nzérékoré.

“The Kola camp, for instance, which sheltered 6,000 refugees, has just received 3,000 others. The Kouankan Center, Massanta, now has nearly 17,000 refugees following the arrival of 5,000 new refugees.”

Despite the United Nations’ success in Sierra Leone, reports of about 3,000 RUF rebels, renamed the Independent RUF, roaming in Lofa County and parts of Liberia pose fears that a new Sierra Leone war could be sparked once the United Nations leaves.

“We still think that the situation in Liberia poses a threat to the stability in the subregion, or a risk at least. However, given the positive peace process in Sierra Leone, we think that this new reality should be reflected,” says Johan Peleman, a member of the U.N. panel that has recommended maintaining sanctions on Liberia.