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F.A.: no home in the world

About the author
Caroline Moorehead is a biographer and journalist. She wrote a fortnightly openDemocracy column telling stories of refugees and asylum-seekers between May 2002 and December 2003.

Guinea is a country of many natural resources, for the most part untapped. Yet, its seven million inhabitants are among the world’s poorest people. In its far eastern region, along the border with Liberia and the Ivory Coast, are large groups of people – over 200,000 in all – who are even poorer.

Here are some of Africa’s most forgotten and most troubled refugee camps. They are home to a floating population of displaced people from Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. They flow backwards and forwards over the borders of all three countries and into Guinea as civil war flares up and then calms down in their homelands.

With rare exceptions the refugees arrive in Guinea with nothing. The camps which become their home are vast, and above all, poor. Here, they simply wait, day by day, for peace. There is much talk along the border of military activity, rebel incursions, violations of human rights, rape, abduction of young boys to be soldiers. But the overwhelming impression is not of violence – it is of poverty.

There is some life-preserving aid. The refugees are fed on the most basic rations (bulgar, a little maize, salt and groundnut oil) by the World Food Programme, protected by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), given education by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), medical care by Medecins sans Frontieres and water by various other non-governmental organisations. With the best intentions the aid is sticking plaster on an enormous wound.

A child hacked apart

F.A. crossed the border from Sierra Leone into Guinea alone in July 2002. He was then 16, and as a child on his own he has been absorbed into a special programme run by UNHCR and the largest of the American refugee organisations, the International Rescue Committee.

F.A. knows that his mother is dead, because he was with her when she died. It is many years since he had news of his father or his brothers and sisters. Government soldiers amputated his left arm at the elbow, both his ears and three fingers on his right hand. He has been a refugee since he was three. “I was the youngest child in a family of three sisters and a brother. My father was quite old when I was born. My village was called Kekehuan. I can only just remember the day that the rebels attacked. My father decided that he was too old to make the journey and that he would stay behind to see what happened, while we would go to Liberia. I remember the government troops fighting back with guns. I couldn’t walk far, so my mother put me on her back. I was told later that we walked for three days until we reached the border with Liberia. There was no one there and we walked on until we got to a village.”

The family lived in the village for several years. F.A. does not know how they survived, but one by one his older brother and sisters left to make their fortunes elsewhere, until there was only himself and his mother left. When he was seven, she became ill, and as there was no treatment or medicine she died quickly. A neighbour with a wife and a child took him in their care. He lived with them, working for the family, until 2001. He did not go to school.

“That August, Liberian government forces attacked our village, because there had been rumours of rebels being there. The villagers ran out into the bushes and I got separated from the family I was living with. The next day I started walking home, to see what was happening, and I was stopped by an ambush of government soldiers. They tied me up and kept me all night without food. The next morning, the soldiers decided to enter Kekehuan.”

“The leader asked me questions about the rebels and told me that if I didn’t tell the truth they would kill me. I said I didn’t know anything. First they cut off one ear, and then the other. Then they cut off my arm and my fingers. They told me to go to find the rebels, and that I would be their message to them, to show what they would do to them when they caught them.”

“I can’t really remember what happened then, but I must have gone through the bush, because at some point I did meet the rebels. They treated me well. They had some medicine and tried to look after me and kept me with them. For the next two months I stayed with them in the bush. Then I stayed in a village and an old man looked after me.”

This village too was attacked by government forces. The old man disappeared. F.A. ran off once again into the bush, meeting others who had decided to flee over the border into Guinea in search of safety. He joined them and after they crossed the border they found their way to the camp of Kuankan, forty kilometres into the forest. That was six months ago.

Kuankan: no direction home

Kuankan is currently Guinea’s largest refugee camp. Just over 33,000 people, mainly Liberians, but also Sierra Leoneans, live on two square miles of dusty plain, cut out of the surrounding forest. It is also one of Guinea’s oldest camps, and some of its inhabitants have now been there for ten years. The camp is split up into zones and, not long ago, after a new influx of refugees following fresh attacks in Liberia, UNHCR decided to open a twelfth zone.

The older zones have small square mud houses, with thatched roofs and squares of tarpaulin, much of it torn or perished, through which water trickles during eastern Guinea’s long rainy season. Zone 12 is all tarpaulin tents. The rainy season has come early this year, and already the refugees are regularly soaked through, their few extra clothes spread over the roofs of their houses by day to dry out.

As a separated child with terrible injuries F.A. is, in theory, in a special category. Indeed, the IRC looks after him as best it can, and has provided him with somewhere to live and some education, which he receives together with the other 1,500 children without parents in the camp. He has chosen to live alone, without the foster parents the younger children are given. F.A.’s real problem, however, is food. Because he arrived directly at the camp, without going through the usual channels of registration at the border, he has never managed to put himself on the list for food rations, which, though absolutely basic, are enough to live on. He has no choice but to scrounge for food; some days he does not eat.

There is talk now of moving the refugees from Kuankan further inland, away from the border with Liberia which rebel soldiers have started to cross in search of food and recruits for their army. At night Kuankan from which all aid workers pull out before dark, is said to be visited by patrols eager to find young men willing to fight against Charles Taylor’s much-hated government forces.

Three hundred kilometres north lies a camp full of Sierra Leoneans who are due for repatriation by the UNHCR now that a peace of sorts has been concluded in their country. In turn, the Liberians from Kuankan will be sent there. For F.A., 17 and totally alone, it is not so simple. As a Sierra Leonean, he could now go home. But his childhood village of Kekehuan has long since been destroyed in fighting, and all efforts by UNHCR and IRC to trace any surviving relatives have so far yielded nothing. Born in Sierra Leone, brought up in Liberia, a refugee in Guinea, he finds it hard to see where he belongs.

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