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Displaced by Fighting, Liberians Face Severe Health Conditions in IDP Camps
July 19, 2001
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is gravely concerned over the plight of Liberians displaced by confrontations between government forces and armed groups in the county of Lofa, in northern Liberia.
Approximately 40,000 people have fled Lofa county, most of them settling in camps located in Jenne Manna, Bopulu, Gbarnga and Belefanah. It is difficult to estimate the total number of displaced, since northern Lofa county, the location of much of the fighting, remains inaccessible to humanitarian organizations.
Those arriving in the camps tell of harassment and beatings at the hands of armed groups, and many have walked as long as three weeks through the forest. Food reserves have been depleted, and MSF teams are seeing an increase in the number of malnourished children. In addition to respiratory infections and malaria, cases of bloody diarrhea have increased (including confirmed cases of shigella). Current humanitarian operations are unable to cover growing needs, and without proper care, the situation threatens to deteriorate sharply within the coming weeks.
MSF teams constructed the Jenne Manna camp and are providing water, shelter and medical care. They have also begun a vaccination program to protect children under five against yellow fever and measles.
In one of the two Cari camps near Gbarnga, MSF has set up a Therapeutic Feeding Center (TFC) to care for 82 severely malnourished children. The team has also established a health center, which provides more than 100 consultations daily.
In Belefanah, where humanitarian organizations have had only limited access for the past month, 7,000 people lacked water and food over several weeks. An MSF mobile team is now visiting these people daily.
Ten international volunteers are currently present in the area. Three MSF airfreights have already arrived in Monrovia, the most recent carrying 35 tons of medical and logistical material for use in the MSF programs assisting displaced Liberians from Lofa.
Accounts by Displaced People in Lofa:
Kyabeh, a 45-year-old woman, who decided to flee her village, Voinjama in northeastern Lofa county, and sought refuge in the Cari camps, close to Gbarnga:
Many of the people of Voinjama were fleeing. They said the dissidents had taken the town and were heading for my village. I collected my children and my grandchildren, a few things, and a little rice, and we left, along with hundreds of other people. Along the road, we passed through empty villages. Some had been destroyed. To the east of the Lofa River, there's nobody left and some villages were burned down. We were able to survive with what we had and what we found along the way. We had to leave those who were too old or sick behind us, in the village or along the road.
Emmanuel, 34, displaced from the Voinjama region, has also come to live at Cari:
On April 12, the town of Voinjama was attacked. My brother was killed. They took everything from us: our things, our money, sometimes our identity papers. I'm blind. It was very hard to walk for days and days under such conditions. To guide me, my young brother and I held on to each end of a stick. When we got to the bridge, things got even harder. They kept my family but let me go on because I was blind. On the other side, I found myself alone. I couldn't eat or drink, or find a place to sleep. I was completely lost, and I heard people panicking - desperately trying to get into the trucks taking people to Cari. I stayed at Gbalatua, a camp next to the bridge, for a week and a half. Then my younger brother came and brought me here to Cari. MSF has given us a shelter, and life is gradually getting going again. But I don't know when I'll be able to go home, and, anyway, what would I find when I got there? A town and my house destroyed? We'll have to start over. It's the same old story, again and again.
Sonnae is a 35-year-old woman. On June 8, she arrived in Bopulu, to the north of the capital, Monrovia. Before fleeing, she had run a small business in a village close to Voinjama, in Lofa County, in northern Liberia. She had been living alone with her children since her husband left, in 1990.
"On April 23, there were a lot of people leaving. I decided to join them because I'd heard shooting and the noise of firearms in the distance. I left with my four children, taking almost nothing with me. We started walking and walking. I had to leave my father at home. He's too old to keep up with us for long. My brother stayed with him. I was terrified, but I had no choice but to leave. People said that this time we wouldn't be able to hide and wait for everything to calm down.... Everybody was running around, shouting. We walked for over three weeks, sometimes stopping to rest a little. It was really hard for the children. We walked through deserted villages, and some that had been partly destroyed. I fell ill, and we hid until I got better. We didn't eat much, because there was almost nothing to eat. Sasazu was the first place I found that still had people living in it. They helped us, but I had a few problems with the soldiers there. They took my son's shoes, by force. I don't know why they did it, perhaps just because of the war.
We left quite a few people behind us - mainly people who were old or sick. I saw an old lady die on the road. She just couldn't go on any more. A little farther on, at Fassama, we were brought here, by truck, to Bopulu. Right now, we're living in the school, until the shelters are built. In the mornings, we clear out so that the kids can have their classes. When they're finished, we go back in. There's not much to eat, but it's better than before, anyway. I'd like to know what's happened to the rest of my family."
Testimony from Aneley, an MSF physician at Jenne Manna, July 9:
The people arriving were tired and sick. Many of them had diarrhea and fever, and their feet were swollen from all the walking.
Some big tents have been put up to house people, and we've found a good site for the shelters to be put up. Because the forest is very dense all around us, it took many days of work to chop down trees so that people could move in. There are now 524 huts. The families have been given plastic sheeting, to keep their homes watertight. It's the rainy season, and the rain pours down onto our site every day.
The MSF health center is open day and night. It's going to be moved soon, so that we can see more people and improve conditions for them.
We've also opened a small unit for malnourished children. There are six of them right now. Their condition is very worrying, because they didn't get any attention on the road. Djatou, for example, is two years old. When she arrived, three weeks ago, she was in a very serious condition. I didn't know whether I'd be able to do anything to save her. She was suffering from severe malnutrition, pneumonia, and malaria. She wasn't speaking; she didn't say a word. Her mother never comes to see her; it's her grandmother who looks after her. Now she's gradually getting better. She's beginning to smile and talk. She started eating a week ago, and she's gained 500 grams.