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Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire keeps Liberians hungry

Liberians living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire have encountered persistent hardships since crossings were closed in June 2012. Travis Lupick photo.

Joseph Tahyor recalled one day last August when he and some 600 other residents of B’hai Jozon were asked to leave their homes. Men, women, and children, set out first-thing in the morning, and travelled from the Liberian side of the border with Côte d’Ivoire to the relative-safety of Toe Town, some 10 kilometers east.

“They all walked on foot,” Tahyor recounted. “We left for three days before we came back here….when it was no-longer serious fighting.”

Tahyor said that soldiers with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) facilitated the move, and that everything went smoothly enough. But he noted that roughly a quarter of those who left have yet to return to B’hai, afraid of another outbreak of violence related to ongoing unrest in Côte d’Ivoire.

Security has returned to the area, residents agreed. But life is more difficult than it was before. It’s the conflict’s impact on trade that is felt most acutely. Even basic staples have become scarce, residents reported. “We have children who are suffering,” one woman complained. “No food.”

The situation is the same in many villages in Liberia’s eastern border region. The Government has stated that it is aware of such complaints. But most crossings have remained closed for more than four months now, since a June 8 attack killed seven UN Peacekeepers and eight civilians.

In November 2010, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo lost a democratic election but refused to concede defeat. In the ensuing months, clashes between Gbagbo supporters and those of the new President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, left more than 1,500 people dead. Gbagbo was eventually captured and sent to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But sporadic violence has continued, with most attacks occurring in Côte d’Ivoire’s east.

On June 9, 2012, the Government of Liberia launched Operation Restore Hope, which aims to secure the porous border that runs for hundreds of kilometers through dense forest. People in B’hai said that they feel safer since the deployment of soldiers to the area. But they also unanimously complained of economic hardships that have come with the military’s deployment.

Women living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire are bearing the brunt of challenges faced by Liberian's affected by the conflict next door. Travis Lupick photo.

Joanna Zeah, a business woman and mother of six, explained that B’hai residents’ primary trading partners were towns in Côte d’Ivoire. When the AFL arrived, they sealed the border, which has remained closed ever since. Links to suppliers and markets were severed.

“From Ivory Coast, we could get food,” Zeah said. “But the border is closed. When they open the border, then our children can eat.”

Grace David, another merchant, said that the situation has forced the town’s women to search for food in the surrounding forest.

“We go in the bush but it is scary,” she added. “You can be in there and people can come and no one will know. Even to be there for just one hour’s time is scary. If something will happen to you, who will know? Nobody.”

The economic situation in B’hai Jozon is just one of many ways that the low-grade conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is spilling over into Liberia, noted Peter Solo, superintendent for Grand Gedeh, one of four Liberian counties that border Côte d’Ivoire.

In the county capital of Zwedru, Solo described how repeated influxes of Ivorian refugees have become a preoccupation for social service providers previously aiding Liberian communities in need. At the same time, he continued, the economic impact caused by the closure of the border means such assistance is in greater demand.

“We think the government in Côte d’Ivoire needs to fast track a sincere reconciliation process there,” Solo said. “We would greatly benefit from that.”

At B’hai’s closed border crossing, residents emphasized that they were grateful for the improved level of security. But everybody stressed the need for economic assistance, and said that fears of further attacks remain.

“It is two times that this has happened,” said Neeinwley Cooper, vice principal for B’hai-Nicko Elementary and Junior High School. He recounted a second incident, when villagers had to run away in the night.

“The rebels started shooting randomly, heavy guns. And so the whole town left,” he said. “Maybe we will have to run away again. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.”

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

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