Frightened and in search of food, shelter and peace, thousands of refugees surged across the border Wednesday from Ivory Coast, West Africa’s longtime economic bastion, paddling across the river frontier by canoe to escape growing turmoil at home.
Poor survivors of Liberia’s 15 years of vicious civil wars — which only recently ended — were amazed to find themselves opening their homes to civilians fleeing what for decades was West Africa’s most peaceful and prosperous nation.
The influx is a signal of the upheaval that Ivory Coast’s 2-week-old crisis threatens to unleash on a fragile region.
“We came in search of life,” Adam Toure, a 37-year-old Ivorian, told The Associated Press on the first visit by journalists to the border, after he walked for four days from the west Ivory Coast town of Danane.
“But things are tough here,” Toure said, looking around him at his forest-ringed new home in exile. “There is no food, no water.”
Neighbors in Liberia
Many Liberian villagers, familiar through experience with the hardships of refugee life, have turned over their homes to the newcomers — sleeping in their own dirt courtyards so that the exhausted, anxious Ivorian families streaming in could have their beds.
But new wave of people has overwhelmed the scanty resources of the little Liberian border villages.
Aid groups so far have yet to be able to reach the area with enough food, blocked by roads that have washed away to nothing during Liberia’s years of war.
Humanitarian organizations must get here quickly, or “malnutrition will kill many of the refugees,” pleaded Albert Fanga, the local official at the nearby Liberian border town of Butuo.
Two refugees drowned Monday, crossing back across the Cestos River frontier into Ivory Coast in search of food to bring back to their families here, Fanga said.
The exodus started Nov. 5 when Ivory Coast warplanes launched attacks on the rebel-held north, ending a more than year-old cease-fire in Ivory Coast’s 2-year-old civil war.
Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, elected in 2000, said he was frustrated with rebels’ failure to disarm under a peace agreement.
The airstrikes sparked chaos across Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer and one of West Africa’s most developed nations. A Nov. 6 airstrike hit a French peacekeeping post in the north, killing nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.
Small-scale clashes then erupted in much of Ivory Coast, along the ethnic, political and regional fault lines of the war. Combatants variously saw the renewed war as a new opportunity to prevail, or a desperate struggle to stay alive.
Liberia, where the refugees were fleeing, and Sierra Leone, another neighbor, are both emerging from scorched-earth civil wars launched by warlord Charles Taylor.
Taylor opened his career as West Africa’s single-most devastating force in 1989, crossing into Liberia from a base in Ivory Coast with a small band of insurgents, hitting first near here, at the town of Batuo.
Agencies fear spread of unrest
International agencies fear renewed conflict in Ivory Coast likewise could spill across borders, bringing flows of refugees from its 16 million people, wrenching the regional economy and threatening newfound regional peace.
The U.N. refugee agency said it registered just under 10,000 refugees by Tuesday, with more refugees waiting to sign up.
Local officials say roughly 11,000 have now streamed into the area of Butuo alone, with another 3,000 crossing elsewhere from Tuesday to Wednesday morning alone.
Capt. Zahid Hassan, a member of the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force posted in Liberia since the end of its wars in 2003, said peacekeepers are trying to keep an extra presence on the border, fearing combatants may cross into Liberia to obtain weapons and avoid a 2-day-old U.N. arms embargo on Ivory Coast.
At first, the refugees fleeing into Liberia said they had left for fear of what might happen — not wanting to stick around for a repeat of last year’s fighting in Ivory Coast’s west, during the nine months fighting was active.
The worst has arrived
This week, the latest arrivals from Ivory Coast say it’s no longer a matter of fearing the worst. The worst, they say, has started happening.
“War entered our area. This is why we came,” said Elvis Woyegbe, an elderly refugee. “We heard firing near our village and decided to take the road to Liberia.”
Refugees among the 3,000 who arrived Tuesday said government forces entered around the Ivory Coast border town of Klanpleu early Tuesday. They demanded that civilians tell them where rebels were hiding and that they join their ranks. Townspeople refused, and Ivory Coast troops shot them, refugees said.
Leaving their wounded, the civilians fled into Liberia.
“We hope our people will come to our senses and end the war,” said one Ivorian woman, carrying her baby as she fetched water.
Echoing a refrain that became too common among people of neighboring countries in the 1990s, she added, “We hope that it will not take us too long to get back home.”