As Cote d’Ivoire braces for more violence, I asked my survey team (currently running about the Liberian side of the Ivoirian border) what precautions we should be taking. The response was thoughtful. From one collaborator:
I was up on the border over last weekend and things were calm–some Force Nouvelles commanders crossing the border to intimidate refugees, but nothing too serious. The international NGOs and UN are aware of the situation (I came across one Ivorian FN commander who was blatantly intimidating people and reported his presence to UNMIL and UNHCR) and doing the best with their capacity to deal with the situation.
One thing that I noticed was that refugees leaving from the areas controlled by Gbagbo didn’t report nearly as much intimidation as those fleeing from the North. Not the story the international media with their strong pro-Ouattara coverage is focusing on at the moment.
Our survey team is in the area where refugees are crossing from Kissiplay to Butuo in Nimba and I told the team to be a bit more alert when out in the bush as the refugees are in extremely rural areas, crossing on bush paths during the night and stopping in small towns, and not at the main border points where the Force Nouvelles and government have troops. The team should certainly avoid nighttime travel.
Generally though, the place is jammed with NGOs and there seemed to be four or five health and shelter assessment teams for each refugee. Of course that statement is an exaggeration and it applies only to last week, when were only 1700 or refugees (I think now there are 4000). There may be a lot more people coming across now with more acute needs.
What really surprised me though about the action last week was the fact that after assessing and reassessing needs, I was told the NGO and UN community decided not to give any food aid, which is what all the refugees asked for during the assessment. They are worried about pull factors.
From my perspective the grains and oil the WFP give out would have to be served up with some filet mignon to get Ivorians to leave their rice and cocoa fields in the middle of the harvest to cross into Liberia. As refugees they now have to harvest their own food from other people’s gardens and plots to eat.
Some of the refugees look right at home. There are amazing displays of reciprocity where Ivorians who hosted Liberians during the civil war have returned and found those same people to host them during the current crisis.
But some refugees pulled me aside and said, look, do you see that thatch house I have to stay in? With 10 people in one room and no mattress? Do you realize there is no electricity here? Just give me one president instead of two, I don’t care which one, and I will go back.
Meanwhile, in northern Uganda, our team continues to be kept out of a third of our survey sites by a mysterious disease.
The Ugandan government are telling newspapers it is confirmed as the plague. But our inside sources say that the health folks have come to no such conclusion and that they are doubtful it’s either plague or Ebola. One needs to be cautious about government pronouncements. The bureaucrats and specialists are very sensible and able, but the politicians nearly took off the head of a friend of mine who blew the whistle on the last Ebola outbreak.