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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 23:54 GMT 00:54 UK
Liberian refugees end horror trip
A Red Cross doctor examines a refugee aboard the ship on Friday
Seasick passengers suffered a lack of water and basic sanitation
A nightmarish three-week ferry journey has finally ended for over 300 Liberian refugees, who have been allowed to disembark at an Ivory Coast port.

The vessel broke down on Tuesday, prompting a rescue mission and urgent negotiations to allow them off.

The refugees - who had been expecting only a three-day journey - were subjected to conditions on board that a UN official described as "appalling".

There are plans to airlift them home, after they are treated in Abidjan.

The refugees have been transferred to a transit centre in the centre of the city, Fatumata Kabbah of the UN refugee agency UNHCR told the BBC's World Today programme.

Long journey

For many of the 340 passengers aboard the Dona Elvira, most of them women and children, it is the first time they have touched foot on land since leaving Nigeria on 3 May.

I met a woman who could barely speak, she was so exhausted from vomiting
Fatumata Kabbah
Their entry into Ivory Coast followed three days of negotiations between the UNHCR and authorities, after their ferry broke down 40km off the Ivorian coast.

The vast majority of the passengers were Liberian refugees who had paid $150 each to be taken back to Liberia after the collapse of the regime of former President Charles Taylor.

They had been told it would be a three-day journey, and by the time they were rescued supplies of fresh food and water were running out.

There was no sanitation or medical treatment for the sick and exhausted people on board.

"The conditions [were] really appalling - it's really shocking," said Ms Kabbah.

"They don't have enough sanitation, it's overcrowded, people are sick. I met for example a woman who was 43, who could barely speak, she was so exhausted from vomiting repeatedly.

"I also saw a young lady in her 20s who could barely walk, she was so exhausted."

Ms Kabbah said the refugees were desperate to return home after many years of exile but were at the mercy of people who "don't think of safety" when arranging such trips.

She said the UNHCR would try to begin arranging mass repatriations toward the end of 2003.

Heading home

More than 300,000 Liberians fled more than a decade-long civil war for other states in West Africa.

Liberian refugees (archive)
Thousands of Liberians fled their country's recent civil war
Hundreds of thousands also fled to seek safety in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

The fighting which claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, ended last year.

Now most of the refugees want to go home, but the only transport many of them can afford is in badly maintained ferry boats.

Another Nigerian-registered ship carrying 265 Liberians was rescued in January by a Dutch naval vessel after running into engine difficulties.

The BBC's Juliet Dunlop
"Over 300 people were crammed on board - most of them women and children"

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