It’s hard to write about a thing when you know next to nothing about it.
Consider life in a refugee camp. Most Westerners probably associate the idea with forlorn faces behind barbed wire, crying naked babies, piles of garbage and a poignant sense of desperation.
A visit to the Buduburam camp for Liberian refugees built on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana’s capital, dispels such images.
But to truly know what life is like there, you’d still have to live it.
Buduburam is the name of a Ghanaian village and the refugee camp is built right next to it. After 17 years of coexistence, demarcation between camp and village is invisible.
Dirt roads lined with market stalls are crowded midday with a few livestock and cheerful people going about their business or just hanging out.
A few United Nations Refugee Agency buildings on either side of an entrance gate are all that, on the surface, distinguishes Buduburam as something other than home to, at one time, more than 40,000 Liberians.
But underneath the surface is a terrible history.
Liberians first started fleeing to Ghana and other West African nations in 1990, shortly after warlord Charles Taylor stormed the capital, Monrovia.
Peace accord after peace accord failed over the next decade while Taylor’s and other politico-military factions fought each other for supremacy as well as against Ecomog, a collective interventionist battalion dispatched from surrounding West African states.
“Our war was not a conventional war,” said Varney B. Sambola, chair of the Liberian Refugee Welfare Council for Buduburam who left Liberia in 1990.
“It was not a war between nation and nation,” Sambola recalled at his Buduburam office.
“It was brothers against brothers. Brothers sleeping in the same house, people living in the same village, people from the same region, went against one another just for power, just for tribalistic attitude.
“Such war creates a whole lot of fear. Such war brings about a whole lot of atrocity.”
Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire. The ones who survived made their way to refugee camps like Buduburam.
Seventeen years later, the UN is taking steps towards closing the camp.
It imposed a June 30 deadline for voluntary repatriation, after which Liberians are essentially on their own.
“That deadline is a shock for so many refugees,” explained Sambola.
“But that deadline does not indicate a withdrawal of the UNHCR assistance in totality,” he said.
“It only indicates that their facilitation of voluntary repatriation was going to end at that time.”
However, UN finance for camp services — everything from health care to education — has been reduced by 20 per cent, he said.
“There will be a day when assistance of any type will cease.”
Liberia is stabilizing. Its successful 2005 election brought Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power as Africa’s first elected female president.
But many at Buduburam aren’t convinced their country is safe. And Johnson-Sirleaf didn’t visit Buduburam camp to offer assurance when she was in Accra in early July for the African Union summit.
“Many refugees feel the time is not right to go back home,” said Cephas Garneo, editor-in-chief of the camp’s homegrown media collective (www.thevisiononline.net) who attended a meeting between authorities from the camp, the UN and Ghana’s immigration service held while Johnson-Sirleaf attended the summit.
“The chairman of the Ghana refugee board made it crystal clear … those who refuse to go home, in terms of making use of the voluntary repatriation, you will be on your own,” said Garneo, who has lived at Buduburam camp almost since its founding in 1990.
But if “a huge number” of Liberians seek repatriation after the deadline UN authorities suggested they might still assist, he said.
Almost half the refugees moved on in recent years — back to Liberia, or elsewhere in Africa, or abroad.
But about 23,000 refugees remain, not having anywhere else to go or anything in Liberia to go back to.
“How can you go home when you don’t have anything to restart your life with?” asked Nathan Boye, the camp’s 52-year-old librarian who makes $20 a month and estimates 100 school kids visit him each day.
“I lost everything. I lost all my family. They were killed,” said Boye, who has lived at Buduburam since 1996.
“People that are left in Liberia, they are strange people. They are people that fought the war.
“You already lose culture. You want to restart a new culture?
“You know how long it will take you?”
But exiled Liberians have always had three options, said Sambola: repatriation, resettlement abroad or integration with Ghanaian society.
No one ever said refugee status would last forever. Not that anyone wants it. But despite UN diplomacy Liberian struggles are not over yet.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.