Liberia: Pierre Konkunse's tumultuous start to life

Monday, April 18, 2011

  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_00.jpgThe vaccination register at the clinic in Liberian village Buutuo bears witness to the large numbers of Ivorian refugees that have moved into the area in recent months. In March alone, 256 Ivorian children were vaccinated against disease here; only 61 Liberian children received similar treatment at the clinic, supported by Finn Church Aid/ACT Alliance.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_01.jpgLittle Pierre Nyaweko Kokunse is 12 days old, and today he has been vaccinated for the first time at the ACT/FCA-supported clinic in Buutuo, Liberia. He was born in Liberia after his pregnant mother, grandmother and great-grandmother fled from the war in Ivory Coast. His grandfather was shot and killed in the conflict. The family now live in Buutuo, an area where many more refugees have settled.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_02.jpgMany Ivorian refugees crossed the border into Liberia in boats such as this one. Today, both Liberians and Ivorians have taken advantage of the current situation of calm, and are returning from a shopping trip to the market on the Ivorian side where they have been buying basic essentials.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_03.jpgFamily father Jean Stobeu (far left) and his eight family members were approached and asked if they would like to live in this unfinished concrete house when they arrived in Liberia from the Ivory Coast in January. Exhausted and hungry, they readily accepted the offer from the Liberian family. Although they started out as strangers, the families have become friends, and three months later the hosts still refuse to accept either rent or manual labour as payment.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_04.jpgThe roads of Nimba County, Liberia, are poor, and many are simply inaccessible for vehicles larger than a motorbike. When the rainy season begins in May, under-foot conditions will deteriorate, and some areas may be cut off entirely. Road improvements are being made, both by the UN and by FCA/ACT partner EQUIP. But it remains to be seen whether food distribution will go ahead during the rainy season.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_05.jpgCassawa mash for lunch: Everyone needs to be fed when a family is building its own house! In the village of Duoplay on the Liberian border to Ivory Coast, an Ivorian family is constructing a permanent dwelling on land offered to them by a Liberian family in the heart of the village. The 35-strong household has spent the last 3 months sleeping in the same house as the host family of 17 people; now the Ivorians will be able to sleep in their own three-room building of around 50 square metres. Despite this happy development, the village is running out of food, and the last cassawa has been taken out of the forest. How they will survive until the next harvest in October, nobody knows.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_06.jpgArild Isaksen, head of the Emergency Preparedness Division at ACT member Norwegian Church Aid, discusses the situation with refugees from Ivory Coast in the Liberian village of Teahplay.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_07.jpg”We won’t return to our country before the armed groups are disarmed,” says Doh Bouin, leader and spokesperson for the Ivorian refugee population in the village of Teahplay.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_08.jpgMathieu Zain and his family fled from the war in Ivory Coast and are now living with a host family in the village of Teahplay. Zain has been part of a FCA/ACT-supported cash-for-work program with local partner organisation EQUIP. The program hires local residents – both Liberian and Ivorian - to carry out repairs to roads and bridges to improve access in advance of the onset of the rainy season. Each worker receives $5 and a hot meal for every day of work.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_09.jpgBettine Dayleb (left) and Ann Dehmie (right, with child) are refugees from Ivory Coast. Both are now living with host families in the village of Teahplay, Nimba County, Liberia. They are worried that their children are unable to go to school in this remote area. “They just run around all day,” says Ann. “And we have to look after them, meaning we can’t go into the fields and work, so we can’t earn money to buy our own food.” The many refugee women who arrived in Liberia without their husbands are particularly vulnerable when resources are scarce, as they are now.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_10.jpgMa Martin had her left arm amputated at the shoulder several years ago. She fled the war in Ivory Coast with her grandchildren as well as the grandchildren of a neighbor. “How am I to take care of all of these children? I cannot work, and we rely on others to give us food,” she says.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_11.jpgIvory Coast (far banks) is but a short boat ride from Liberia.
  • LR_2011-04_11_Laurie_MacGregor_12.jpgBuckets wait patiently in line until the well is opened again in the evening. With 100% more inhabitants than normal in the village of Teahplay, the well must ble closed for several hours each day to adequately refill with water. FCA/ACT partner EQUIP is in the process of rehabilitating to increase capacity of several wells and build new ones where required.
  • LR_2011_04_13_NCA_Laurie_MacGregor.jpgIvorian grandmother Céline Nyaweko Konkunse (left) and her grandchild Pierre (12 days old) at the clinic supported by Finn Church Aid/ACT Alliance in Buutuo near the boarder. Pierre is getting vaccines. Céline fled her country when her husband got killed in December 2010. Together with her old mother and pregnant daughter they managed to walk from Zonya in two weeks (Should've taken 24 hrs).

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.