- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

SINJE, Liberia After losing everything to Sierra Leone's feared rebels, Emmanuel Kwashie was finally starting to rebuild his life in neighboring Liberia. But when the gunfire started again, he didn't hesitate.

Gathering his wife and two small sons, he took to the road this time back to Sierra Leone, where one of West Africa's most savage conflicts was officially declared over last month.

"Every time you try to make your life, the fighting comes," he said, feeding spoonfuls of rice out of a plastic cup to his 2-year-old as the family rested in an abandoned house shot up in recent fighting. "If we are going to die, it is better to go home and die there."

Until recently, many of the estimated 100,000 Sierra Leoneans living in Liberia were nervous about returning home especially to parts of the country still controlled by rebels whose signature atrocity was hacking off the hands, feet, noses, lips and ears of their victims.

But when a 2-year-old insurrection reached the outskirts of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, for the first time this month, thousands packed up their belongings and headed for the border many walking days to get there.

For Mr. Kwashie's family, the nightmare began more than 10 years ago in Sierra Leone's eastern Kenema district, when rebels burst into their town, burning, looting and killing. Mr. Kwashie's mother and father died in the attack, and his two daughters were lost in the ensuing panic. He never saw them again.

Fleeing into the forest, he began a monthlong journey over the border and into Liberia, where he lived in a succession of refugee camps. War caught up with him again in Monrovia, where feuding warlords reduced almost every building to rubble during a seven-year conflict that killed more than 150,000 people and forced 2.6 million from their homes.

After a final 1996 peace accord, followed by elections in 1997, Mr. Kwashie moved to Tubmanburg, a provincial capital in the heart of Liberia's northwestern diamond-mining region. Here he found a room for his family and built a small but successful masonry business.

He left it all behind eight days ago when heavy gunfire broke out in the town 37 miles north of Monrovia.

"It was completely terrifying and horrifying," said Mr. Kwashie, a slim man in stained trousers, a fraying shirt and too-large sandals he found by the side of the road. "There was just firing, and the house was shaking."

When the shooting subsided, the family loaded what it could into two wheelbarrows and started the 25-mile trek southwest toward Sinje, where the U.N. refugee agency has started repatriating Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia's two largest camps.

By Saturday they had reached the burned-out and deserted town of Klay Junction, where a Feb. 7 attack raised fears the fighting was nearing the capital. Here they rested among the scattered belongings of more than 10,000 people who had gathered at the crossroads 23 miles north of Monrovia after fleeing fighting further north.

More than 5,400 Sierra Leonean refugees along with about 7,600 Liberians have crossed into Sierra Leone since the Klay attack, according to U.N. officials there, and more are arriving every day.

Most come from the two camps at Sinje, which together accommodated about 15,000 refugees. Long lines of people form every day in Sinje to sign up for the repatriation program, but many aren't waiting for UNHCR trucks to collect them.

The better-off families crowd into shared taxis with mountains of luggage piled on top, but most make the 25-mile trip to the border by foot.

As they leave, a steady stream of new arrivals many of them Liberians fleeing fighting further north stagger into the camps, sweat streaming down their faces after days of walking with bundles of clothes, rolled-up mattresses and baskets of chickens balanced on their heads.

"This country is not safe," said Michael Berewa, a Sierra Leonean who had been planning to finish a three-year education course in Liberia before going home, but has now changed his mind. "I ran from war, and now war comes again."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide