Ibrahim Camara, displaced Guinean
par Juan Martinez
The Red Cross Society of Guinea assisted
thousands of refugees fleeing the clashes in the areas bordering
Sierra Leone and Liberia.
*concession: a group
of buildings surrounding a courtyard, where many Guinean families
Since the end of summer 2000, Guinea has been the scene of armed
clashes, mainly in the regions neighbouring Sierra Leone and
Liberia. The fighting, which has already claimed many casualties,
has centred on Guéckédou, a large commercial centre
in Guinea Forestière. Today, the town lies partly in
ruins, and its inhabitants have fled to safety elsewhere.
It was around 1 a.m. on Tuesday 6 December. The next day
was market day and the town was crammed with vehicles and
merchandise. Suddenly, the sound of gunfire filled the air,
getting louder and closer by the minute. My wife said, 'It's
the rebels!' Dogs began to bark; there was shouting all around
Hurriedly, we snuffed out the lamps and woke the children,
then we hid under the beds to avoid being hit by stray bullets.
Our house is built on a hill, from where you can see Liberia;
barely three or four kilometres away lies the River Makona,
a loop of which carves out a natural border between the two
countries. After a while, I went and knocked on my neighbour's
door, and soon three families had gathered in his home. We
were 30 in all, men, women and children, huddled in the same
room. Sometimes we had to cover the mouths of the little ones
to stop them crying out. We had nothing to eat or drink. We
were stuck; we didn't dare move. We stayed like this until
early afternoon. Around 2 p.m., the Guinean army, bolstered
by reinforcements, had regained control of the town. It was
then that we decided to leave. We abandoned our concession,
taking nothing with us and leaving the front door open behind
No going back
The man describing these hours of anguish, his eyes still
wide with fear, is Ibrahim Camara. He was a farmer in Guéckédou,
a town of 56,000 inhabitants in Guinea Forestière.
Today, he is one of the thousands of displaced Guineans who
have fled the areas bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ibrahim
is currently living with relatives on the outskirts of Kissidougou,
82 km north of Guéckédou.
Ibrahim continues his tale, punctuating the long breathless
sentences with brief silences, before repeating his last words
as if to stress the importance of what he is saying. "On
reaching the bridge at the entrance to the town, we found
lifeless bodies: the tangled corpses of rebels and local inhabitants,
Guineans and refugees. A bit further along, we found more
rebels' bodies. The morning's fighting had taken a heavy toll.
We rapidly made our way out of the town and walked several
kilometres before stopping to rest.
Thousands of people were fleeing headlong out of the city.
Having heard that the rebels had occupied Yendé
(a town between Guéckédou and Kissidougou),
we decided to head for Kissidougou on foot, taking small back
roads away from the main thoroughfares. When we were thirsty,
we drank from backwaters, and for food we ate fruit. In the
villages we came to, where we slept overnight, there was nothing
to eat. After four days of walking, we reached Kissidougou.
The brother of a young man with whom we had shared the road
took us in, to give us time to sort ourselves out."
Sitting under a tree, whose generous shade provides shelter
from the suffocating heat of end March, Ibrahim knows that
he is one of the lucky ones, even if he has lost everything.
He, his wife and four children, have been registered by the
ICRC and receive assistance.
Smiling broadly, Ibrahim lists what they have received: "Six
blankets, two buckets, four mats, two four-litre cans of oil,
two bags of bulghur (crushed wheat), a kilo of salt and 14
bars of soap", adding, with an embarrassed look, that
in his view they could still do with "some lamps, water
bowls, large cooking pots, clothes..." And then, he says
almost inaudibly: "We, Guineans, we don't eat bulghur,
we eat rice." Ibrahim is nonetheless aware that he has
no choice but to accept his new condition. He has to start
again from nothing, but he can rely on the traditional solidarity
that exists among Guineans. He knows, too, that it will be
a long time before he can return to Guéckédou.
As long as it is not safe, he will not go back. It is the
lot of the large majority of internally displaced people in
The ICRC has been present in Guinea since 1991. At present,
it has some 20 expatriates in the country and 100 local employees.
The main delegation is in the capital, Conakry, and there
are sub-delegations in Kissidougou, Nzérékoré
and Kankan. The ICRC's activities mainly comprise assistance
to displaced people and support to medical facilities. Other
tasks include visits to people deprived of their liberty,
restoring family links and the exchange of Red Cross messages,
and dissemination of international humanitarian law. The ICRC
is the lead agency for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
in Guinea and works in close cooperation with the Federation
and the Red Cross Society of Guinea.
Ibrahim Camara (wearing pink t-shirt) with his family in Kissidougou
where they have been settled temporarily.
The ICRC is on its way to Guéckédou, which
it last visited on 7 February, for a reconnaissance mission.
The purpose is to assess the water and sanitation needs, in
particular along the river, where the population collects
water for domestic use. On 21 March, following authorization
from two military prefects in the region, the team consisting
of Jacqueline Gros, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Kissidougou,
Ibrahim Koné of the Guinean Red Cross and myself [the
author] enetered Guéckédou. Although the outskirts
of the town are busy - it is market day and a market has been
set up near the military camp - once past the bridge over
the Makono, the decor abruptly changes. Built on three small
hills between which runs the river, Guéckédou
displays all the hideous scars of war: shattered buildings,
collapsed roofs, pockmarked walls, burned-out cars and charred
debris. The regional hospital, which once boasted several
departments (obstetrics, surgery, etc.), is partially destroyed.
Several buildings have had their doors ripped off and the
windows broken; offices have been laid to waste. Elsewhere,
private houses have suffered the same fate. The courtyards
of the concessions are littered with personal belongings,
including half-empty suitcases, scattered papers, broken toys.
Signs of frantic flight and looting are everywhere.
In an outlying district, above the hidden River Makona, rise
smart houses surrounded by shrubbery aflame with bougainvillaea.
Liberia lies just a stone's throw away.
The silence is eerie. There is no sign of life. The atmosphere
is suddenly stifling, strained. The team heads back down to
the river, leaving behind a once-thriving town, full of life.
Today it is dead, a ghost town.
A new life
Settled into a new town and a new life, Ibrahim has not been
idle. He has already built a small house of beaten earth,
for soon he must make way for others to occupy the rooms he
has been lent. He has also dug a well, and volunteered for
the Guinean Red Cross. He hopes that one of the many international
non-govermental organizations working in the region may one
day have need of his services. For now, uncertainty prevails,
and daily rumours of imminent attacks in the region complicate
humanitarian activities. "The situation has deteriorated
very quickly and is out of the control of many of the region's
officials. The consequences have had a detrimental effect
on humanitarian work," laments Marc Bouvier, head of
the ICRC mission in Guinea, who is leaving the country at
the end of a two-year stay. His concern is shared by Sally
Miller, his counterpart at the Federation, who sees in the
current insecurity a major obstacle to the work of humanitarian
agencies. As always.
Juan Martinez is ICRC press officer for Africa.
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