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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 live.

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 our concession.*

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 us."

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 world.


ICRC action

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.

Ghost town

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
Juan Martinez is ICRC press officer for Africa.

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