Liberia: Pierre Konkunse's tumultuous start to life
Monday, April 18, 2011
As calm returns to the Ivorian capital Abidjan following the removal from power of former president Laurent Gbagbo, conditions for refugees in neighbouring countries remain intolerable.
The presidential crisis has left over 1 million people displaced in Ivory Coast and forced 135,000 others to flee to neighbouring Liberia, where ACT is running health clinics, rehabilitating wells and improving road access to villages.
At an ACT clinic in the Liberian town of Buutuo near the border, the gravity of the situation is borne out by Ivorian grandmother Céline Nyaweko Konkunse, 36, who was at the clinic having her 12-day-old grandchild Pierre vaccinated.
Konkunse fled Ivory Coast when her husband was killed in December. With her elderly mother and pregnant daughter, 15, they managed to walk from Zonya in two weeks, a trek that should have taken only 24 hours.
“In grief and having escaped the violence, the journey was very painful for them,” said ACT’s Eva Berglund. “The young mother had been walking for a week to the clinic, just a month before the delivery, so she was very happy to have arrived.”
ACT helps the clinic hire more staff, get medical supplies and train health workers. It is working to bring an ambulance fitted with radio communication to the area.
Now mother and daughter are slowly recovering from the ordeal. At a mission station, the family sought refuge and were welcomed with open arms. They were among 20,000 refugees who came to Buutuo in January – an influx which doubled the town’s population.
The number of refugees in Buutuo has since halved as people return home or go to a refugee camp further into Liberia. For Konkunse, home is not an option. “We have lost so much in the last months that we can’t return now,” she says. Behind her proud smile, one can see both pain and worry.
Liberian families that have generously hosted Ivorians have themselves endured immense pressure in the last few months. They are now almost out of food supplies and the harvest is not until October. “Normally they can just cross the river and walk 40-45 minutes to the market but now they have to go four or five hours by motorbike for food supplies. Even then the roads are not in good condition. You can really see there’s a need for reconstruction,” Berglund says.
ACT’s coordinator for Liberia, Paivi Muma, says the scores of refugees crossing to Liberia are moving without security or the protection of UN peacekeepers, and without food or clean drinking water.
“People are getting sick, and have very bad nutrition. In one local health clinic, we found that people have no food or clean water and are getting lung infections because they are so weak.” In some instances, hundreds of people live in the same building.
She said the United Nations was not meeting its obligation to meet international humanitarian criteria. “We need to support the UN but we are not the UN. The scale of the crisis is huge.”
Roads and bridges need urgently to be repaired to allow delivery of relief supplies, she said. In the rain, vehicles got stuck in mud.
Muma said the situation had worsened beyond the presidential dispute to become a re-ignition of historic tribal differences dating back to the 2003 civil war. “The political crisis is now critical and shows no sign of getting better.
“The situation of the refugees is really bad. Some people are staying in the bushes. Liberians are trying to help them in their homes but they have nothing for the refugees.”
Konkunse has no way of knowing what the coming days or months will bring. In the meantime, her solace and hope lies in the birth of tiny Pierre, one of the next generation of Ivorians.