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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Family split by West African rebellions
Kate Davenport
BBC, Nicla Peace Camp, Ivory Coast

Sammy, a weary 17-year-old, is just one of the many thousands of Liberians who have fled their home for Ivory Coast.

Like many others, including children, he has ended up fighting for one of the rebel groups operating across the region's porous borders.

Child Liberian fighter in Ivory Coast
Child refugees are being recruited by rebels groups across the region

"I've had enough, I don't want to fight anymore," he says.

"I can hardly see anymore, and I'm afraid I might kill my brother, who's fighting on the other side," he says, rubbing his eyes.

One of his pupils is completely white, and the other is turning that way with a cataract.

As the situation degenerates in Monrovia, Liberians continue to flee to neighbouring Ivory Coast, traditionally considered a harbour of stability in the troubled West African region.

But all that changed last year, when an armed rebellion split the country in two.

President Laurent Gbagbo blamed neighbouring countries for backing the rebellion, and a wave of xenophobia followed.

Since then, many Liberians refugees have been caught in the crossfire.

Caught in the middle

There are regular shoot-outs at the inappropriately-named Nicla Peace Camp, near Guiglo in western Ivory Coast.

Created eight years ago, after an earlier bout of fighting, Nicla is now a sprawling village of mud and thatch, in an ever-extending forest clearing.

Nicla refugee camp
Liberians in refugee camps were left defend themselves from Ivorian rebels

Liberian refugees here complain they were abandoned by authorities as soon as Ivorian rebels came within spitting distance.

"Our status is unclear, the government accuses us of being rebels, and rebels accuse us of being with the government," laments Dao Kamara, a Liberian refugee who fled to Ivory Coast during the first wave of fighting back in 1990.

"When rebels tried to come down here in December, the UN left and the government abandoned us," he complained.

"If the rebels had got this far, they would have massacred us. The only thing that stopped them was the French foreign legion at the ceasefire line in Duekoue."

Many young men say they were forced to fight for the Ivorian army.

Since a total ceasefire was signed in Ivory Coast last month, they want to stop. But that is easier said than done.

Brutally killed

Sammy was separated from his family two years ago, after an earlier bout of fighting in Liberia.

"It was the holidays," he recalls. "My mother sent me and my little brother to stay with my stepfather just outside Monrovia, when the fighting broke out."

They [Ivorian army] told us we could keep what we looted, but they wouldn't give us money. They gave me a gun, AK47, and a uniform
Sammy

His breaking voice fades away, as he recalls how his stepfather was brutally killed in front of him.

When the two boys finally reached Monrovia, their mother had disappeared.

Sammy and his 11-year-old half-brother began the long trek to Ivory Coast.

After crossing the border, they arrived at a transit camp in Danane, before ending up at Nicla.

"I was strong enough to survive in Nicla camp, but my brother decided to return to Danane. He was fed up. There was no food, and no school."

Sammy's half-brother also had problems because he had a different surname, labelling him as being from a different ethnic group.

Ethnic ties

Most of the refugees in the Nicla refugee camp are Krahn, some of them former fighters from the army of the late former Liberian President Samuel Doe - a bitter enemy of embattled President Charles Taylor.


When two new Ivorian rebel factions, based in Danane (MPIGO) and Man (MPJ), emerged last December, Sammy and his brother suddenly found themselves on different sides of the frontline.

The situation intensified, as both sides began recruiting Liberian fighters.

Most Liberians joining the Ivorian rebels in Danane, were Gio - the ethnic group of Mr Taylor, also that of the late General Robert Guei, a former military ruler of Ivory Coast.

The MPIGO and MPJ rebels had taken up arms to avenge the death of Mr Guei, who was killed with his family on the first day of the Ivory Coast uprising, 19 September 2002.

'Only rebels'

The rebels pledged to move south to take the cocoa-growing south-west, and Ivory Coast's second port of San Pedro.

The Nicla camp lies in the middle.

"We were only saved by the French soldiers at Duekoue," says one refugee.

If you take a town, they pay you 5,000 CFA francs ($9)
Sammy

Around that time, some Liberians within the Nicla camp began to organise themselves into vigilante groups.

Some offered their services to the Ivorian military, others had little choice.

"When the Ivorian army came in the camp, they told us we must help push the rebels out the country," says Sammy.

"They told us we could keep what we looted, but they wouldn't give us money. They gave me a gun, AK47, and a uniform, then they carried us on the frontline to fight, in Toulepleu."

Toulepleu has been the scene of some of the most bloody fighting and has changed hands several times.

Nicla refugee camp in Ivory Coast
Ivorian soldiers recruit Liberian youngsters in refugee camps

It was from Toulepleu that in 1989 Charles Taylor, then a rebel leader, launched his own attack on Liberia, as General Guei, then chief of the armed forces under late President Houphouet-Boigny, turned a blind eye.

Sammy insists he did not kill innocent people in Toulepleu.

"Only rebels. Sometimes we captured one or two. Some spoke French, some English. They told us they come from Bouake, Man ... Danane.

"That's when I thought maybe it might be my brother, I don't know. I can't see well, and maybe I don't recognise him after this time. He would be 13 by now.

"Some of my separated friends are only seven, ten or 12-years-old," he adds.

"They are still fighting, or at least they have not yet come back. They are still there because of the hardship situation," he says.

"If you take a town, they pay you 5,000 CFA francs ($9)."

"I decided to return to Nicla because I don't want to kill my brother. I didn't stay with them to go into Liberia," he says.

Rainforest

Since he returned, he has been forced to go into hiding.

"I was not bold enough to tell the army I was tired of fighting. Because when you say that they will force you to go."

The neighbouring civil wars, spanning the jungles of West Africa's largest remaining rainforest, Tai, have become increasingly entangled since the emergence of a new rebel group in south-east Liberia, Model.

"When President Taylor was indicted, there were shots of joy in the camp here," says an exasperated Caritas worker.

President Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor has long ties with Ivory Coast

"Our hands are tied as humanitarian workers. We have reported the situation to the authorities, but the security is in the hands of the government."

Another Liberian man says he fled from Zwedru in eastern Liberia, after it was attacked by Model fighters.

It took him four days of searching to find his wife and their toddler, before setting off to seek refuge over the border in Ivory Coast.

"When we were walking through the bush, I met 250 men. They told me to halt, and put my hands up. They searched me, asking if I was a soldier. They were wearing the same camouflage uniform of the Ivorian army, but they were all Liberians from the Model.

"The same people there are the same people here," he adds.

Now he feels trapped. "All I wanted to do was to run from Liberia to seek refuge in Ivory Coast. But there is no way now I can get away from here, as I don't have papers to get through the Ivory Coast checkpoints."

The refugees reported the situation to the UN high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, when he visited the camp last month, but so far nothing has changed.

"He promised to try and find us another country, but we are stuck, no one wants us," says Sammy.


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