updated 10/1/2004 3:51:06 PM ET 2004-10-01T19:51:06

A hundred Liberian refugees flew home from Ghana on Friday, the first of 340,000 scattered across West Africa by the country’s civil war to be repatriated by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“There is nowhere like home. We can stay out for many years but if we do not come back home, we are nothing,” said Harry Naplah, 35, after landing in the capital Monrovia.

“I left because of the war but today I’m happy that there’s no more war in our country,” said Naplah, from the southeast of Liberia, who fled his homeland last year.

Liberia’s transitional government hosted a ceremony at the airport to welcome the returnees.

14 years of civil war
“The war is over,” government Deputy Chairman Wesley Johnson said to cheers and applause from the refugees. “Open up your arms to those who offended you. Forgive them and move ahead.”

Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic and was founded by freed American slaves. It was once a prosperous nation in an otherwise impoverished and turbulent region but it has been battered by nearly 14 years of civil war.

Jimmy Ben Wilson, whose parents were killed in the war in 1990, said he had been well looked after in Ghana, where he sold ice. But he was glad to be back.

“I have come to work and go to school,” said Wilson, holding a blue bag and accompanied by his eight-year-old son. He said he hoped to study business now he was home.

It was the departure of former President Charles Taylor into exile in August last year as rebel fighters shelled the crumbling capital that paved the way for a 15,000-strong U.N. force to deploy in the West African country.

The United Nations aims to repatriate 100,000 Liberians this year, 154,000 in 2005 and 65,000 the year after.

“This is a real milestone in the recovery of a country that not long ago seemed hopelessly mired in conflict, corruption and misery. Obviously this is sign of new hope for Liberia,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a briefing on Friday in Geneva.

Search for family members
The refugee agency says 50,000 Liberians have already returned on their own this year, often using risky methods of transport. A marooned ship carrying 400 Liberians from Ghana had to be rescued by the French navy in May off the coast of Ivory Coast.

Daniel Makhuis, UNHCR protection officer in Ghana, said they would hire a boat for a larger group to return before the end of the year, though he thought some would stay put for now.

“The majority will wait until after the elections next October,” Makhuis said.

An eight-year civil war ended when Taylor was elected in a 1997 presidential election. But a rebel group took up arms two years later and analysts say there is a risk of more violence ahead of the next election, slated for October 2005.

UNHCR officials also said some refugees had no one left in Liberia and would stay in Ghana for good.

But for 54-year-old teacher Matis Kpoto, Friday’s flight was the start of a quest for his family.

“Our place came under attack and I was separated from my wife and children. I escaped first to Guinea. I thought they might have gone there. Later I found my way to Ghana. They were not here either,” he said.

“I don’t know whether they’re alive or dead. But I’m going home to search for them. I have a feeling we will meet again.”

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