The Liberian ‘refugees’ who don’t want to go home

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It was on the eve of Christmas when the first war began in 1989. That year, Christmas turned out to be different for Liberians. It changed the lives of everyone, especially the children who had unbridled expectations to spend time with their families or go out as a way of celebrating the symbolic birth of Jesus.

But the war turned the country on its head, forcing millions including helpless children and their parents to run for their lives.

Samuel Ephraim was one of those children. He was just a teenager when his family fled to Ghana on a 1,302-kilometre journey through Cote Ivoire.

Thirty-two years later, he sifts through some gruesome memories, including the cruelty that turned thousands of innocent children into hard-hearted child soldiers clutching deadly weapons.

How a Liberian warlord lived freely in Canada until he was gunned down - The Globe and Mail
The Liberian civil wars unleashed the worse form of violence, resulting in the death of thousands      Credit: The Globe & Mail

Samuel recalled with nostalgia how life was for him when he first arrived at the Buduburam Camp in the Central Region, which became home to thousands of Liberian refugees for decades.

“I came to the camp with my parents when I was just a young boy, and the Ghanaians I met were very receptive. I also bore and raised all my children here; life was a bit easier at that time because we were receiving support from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees]and other NGOs. But now, we have to fend for ourselves because those mentioned stopped supporting us over ten years now,” he said.

Although times are hard in Ghana and Liberia’s three bloody civil wars ended decades ago, Mr. Ephraim is indecisive about going back home.

He said he had spent 32 years living in Ghana and saw no reason to go back to his land of birth.

However, the reason may be more economic than fear and sentiments. Unable to find a job, he turned to entrepreneurship. He now has a thriving business in Ghana, a wholesaler of drinks.

“I have been running this business for 17 years now. I employed thirteen Ghanaians before, but they have all left because we fell out. They were not sincere to me.”

He now has three workers, including two Ghanaians.

According to the UNHCR, 42,000 Liberian refugees found safety in Ghana during the period of the Liberian civil wars. As of May 2020, 11,000 of them remained in Ghana despite the UN refugee agency withdrawing all its support for them, including their refugee status.

Buduburam appears to be an eternal home for most of them. It did not only serve as an abode for Liberians, but also for other nationals. It became a symbol of hope for a new life. Many of them have now integrated into the Ghanaian society. Some of them retuned to Liberia to contribute to its recovery but had to abandon the dream and come back to Ghana.

Bendu Logan is one of the returnees. She was forced to flee her home country as a young girl with nothing but the clothes on her back. She left behind her family and ambitions.

Ms. Logan first found safety in Cote d’Ivoire, but when the Ivorian civil war flared up in 2002, She took off again. She decided that wherever she found peace would become her home.

Ghana, it was, and precisely, the Buduburam Camp.

The Buduburam Camp is home to thousands of Liberians living in Ghana

In 2005, when the guns went silent and Liberia began plodding towards recovery, she went back to pick up from where she left off.

Bendu described her going back home as a “wrong decision”. She couldn’t trace a single family member.

“I had no one to go to. My whole family was killed during the war, and I had to start all over again. So, I decided to come back to Ghana,” she recalled.

A mother of three, Bendu said living in Ghana as a refugee was beneficial for two reasons—the government had taken the burden of financing her daughter’s senior high school education. And her business was also doing well.

“She’s in school right now and she wants to be a journalist like you,” she said.

Bendu who asked not to be photographed said her foodstuff business keeps them going

While many Liberians are unclear about their future plans for their homeland, others don’t have any sentimental attachment to the country that boiled with internal conflict from 1989 to 2003.

Isaac Jerlue is one of the many Liberians in the camp who do not have plans to go back home. Raised in the camp since he was four, Isaac now considers himself a Ghanaian in spite of being born to Liberian parents.

“I was born in Ivory Coast, but my parents and I came to the camp after fleeing the war in Liberia and Ivory Coast. I went to school here and my friends at school [Ghanaians] were nice to me Even though I am not a Ghanaian, they did not treat me differently”.

Isaac, who is also running a graphic-design business in partnership with two of his Liberian friends in the camp, said his parents did not sponsor him in school because a Liberian NGO offered him a scholarship.

 “I also started this business with my friends as a means of [getting]income for myself and it has been good since we started,” he said.

The threatened home

In spite of their relative success and the reluctance to move back home, residents of the camp face threats of ejection. The government of Ghana plans to demolish the camp.

In February 2011, the government of Ghana told the residents that the camp had outlived its purpose. Therefore, the former refugees should consider returning to Liberia or settling elsewhere in Ghana.

But with pleas from the community, the government has reconsidered its decision. The Ghana Refugee Board said the demolition of the camp had been suspended due to several appeals from residents of the camp.

The Fourth Estate’s attempt to speak to the board was not successful.

However, in an interview with Citi TV in September 2021, the Board Secretary of the Ghana Refugee Board, Tetteh Padi, explained that the government was sensitive to the plight of refugees.

That, he said, had informed its decision to suspend the demolition and to give the residents time to make alternative arrangements for shelter.

The demolition was set to begin on September 30, 2021, but it is yet to happen.

Tetteh Padi further stated that there were only 400 persons considered refugees in the camp and that the government was making an alternative arrangement for them.

The assistance

During the heat of the war, Liberians received tremendous support from Ghanaians (the Government, individuals, and different organizations) and the UNHCR

Food, clothing and shelter were provided for the Liberian refugees. However, all that stopped when peace was restored in Liberia.

In 1997, following a successful election, which the United Nations saw to be fair, the UNHCR saw the need for safe repatriations, but many Liberians soon returned to Ghana when the second war broke out.

The UNHCR began pulling out of the camp in April 2007 and withdrew its services that were administered in the heat of the war.

During the UNHCR withdrawal from the camp, an estimated 3,000 refugees returned to Liberia while the majority chose to stay in Ghana.

However, in January 2012, UNHCR announced the cessation of refugee status for Liberian worldwide by the end of June 2012. At the beginning of 2012, the refugees in Ghana were given two options: to either repatriate by the end of June 2012 or remain in Ghana through an agreement that existed among the member countries of ECOWAS.

At the end of June 2012, those who remained in Ghana and continued living in the camp were given a new identity as ECOWAS migrants.

In February 2014, close to two years after the termination of their refugee status, Liberians who decided to stay in Ghana were finally issued ECOWAS passports, which included a two-year work and residence permit.

The permit has enabled some Liberians to work in different Ghanaian sectors

The turmoil

The first Liberian civil war, which began in 1989 and lasted up to 1996, saw the killing of thousands of Liberians. The second and most brutal war occurred from1999 to 2002. It sparked off again in 2003 to become what Liberians call “War, War Three”.

Liberia’s first civil war began after its 21st President, Samuel Kanyon Doe, came to power in 1980. The government was dogged with flagrant acts of corruption. The administration bankrupted Liberia and alienated the United States which withdrew its support, including financial aid to the Doe government

With the government struggling for legitimacy while the economy crumpled, rebel movements sprang up to take over. Doe himself came through a coup.

The National Patriotic front of Liberia (NPFL), headed by Charles Taylor (who later became president), invaded Liberia from Cote d’Ivoire with the intent of overthrowing Doe.  However, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), led by Prince Johnson, captured Doe in September 1990 and executed him.

First Liberian Civil War (1989-1996) •

The two rebel groups then faced each other over the control of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. They also fought against the Armed Forces of Liberia and Doe’s group United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy.

The need to bring an end to the war, ensure peace negotiations and attract foreign investment led to a ceasefire in 1995. But that did not yield fruits until August 1996, when a peace agreement between the warring factions was signed.

Charles Taylor got the upper hand and got elected in 1997. That ushered the country into another period of grief from1999 to 2003 as disenchanted political allies of Mr Taylor, including Prince Johnson of the INPFL wanted their share of power.

Mr Taylor held power until 2003 when he bowed to international pressure and resigned. He was, however, arrested in Nigeria in 2006.

The dead and the broken

The effect of the Liberian civil war is still felt greatly by Liberians, who are yet to recover from the socio-economic cost.

Many Liberians were forced to flee to different African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Guinea, which many of them now consider their home.

An estimated 250,000 people lost their lives to the civil war, which maimed an estimated 850,000 others, and displaced millions.

Some Liberians who fled did not have anything and anyone to go home (Liberia) to, thus, putting them in a tight spot to make hard decisions to stay wherever the war pushed them.

Of the many countries the war led people to, Ghana was one of the countries that received the highest number of refugees through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

Ghana, according to statistics from the UNHCR received 42,000 refugees which is inclusive of other nationals but with Liberians bearing the highest numbers

Baiting peace

The protracted war saw the intervention of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) and the United Nations (UN).

During the period of the first civil war, there were several peace conferences from ECOWAS and its member states to silence the guns and let peace reign. This included several meetings in Mali, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia and Ghana.

An interim government led by an academic, Prof Amos Sawyer, was also given the green light.

However, Charles Taylor, one of the principal players of the war and head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia refused to attend all the conferences. As a result of that, hostilities returned to Liberia.

The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which ECOWAS instituted to ensure peace in Liberia was reinforced in order to protect the interim government.

This force made up of soldiers from West African countries became the backbone of Liberia’s peace for years.

Although Liberia is back to the corridors of peace and has largely shed off the dead skins of war, millions of its population in the diaspora unsure of their fate when they return to their home country that gave them grief decades ago.

For some of those in Ghana, they have only one home—the Buduburam Camp. It has been a spring board to a new life. They want it to remain so, for as long as they can breathe.

YOU MAY ALSO WANT TO READ: 

62 hours in Liberia: the flight we nearly missed 

The writer of this report, Forgbe Emma Kloh, is a Fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa. 

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