Sunday, December 09, 2007

S.Leone refugees to return from Guinea after polls

Refugee camp in Guinea CONAKRY (Reuters) - Thousands of Sierra Leoneans who fled to neighbouring Guinea during a civil war are due to return home after elections in the former British colony raised hopes of long-term stability, the United Nations said on Saturday.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was organising convoys to voluntarily repatriate some 4,000 Sierra Leoneans from Guinea's capital Conakry and 1,200 others living in camps around the southern Guinean town of Kissidougou.

"The first convoy, which has left, was carrying 140 people ... We'll have to go via Liberia because of the poor state of some of the roads," Faya Millimono, UNHCR spokesman in Guinea, told Reuters.

Close to 100,000 Sierra Leoneans returned home from Guinea with the help of the United Nations between 2000 and 2004 in the closing stages of more than a decade of war in Sierra Leone.

But thousands more refused to go back, hoping to win political asylum in Europe, the United States or Australia. Some of those living in Kissidougou have spent more than 10 years lobbying the UNHCR to help resettle them elsewhere.

In September, Sierra Leone held its first elections since the departure of U.N. peacekeepers, polls won by former insurance executive Ernest Bai Koroma, who pledged greater prosperity and stability for the country.

But not all Sierra Leonean refugees want to return from Guinea, itself an impoverished country where even those living in the capital lack running water or electricity.

"I lost my father, my mother and my three children in the war. I don't want to go back, I still don't feel safe," said Titus Roberts, 43, who has lived in Conakry for 10 years.

Others cling to the hope of being resettled in a third country.

"Here, like in Sierra Leone, I don't feel safe. We are constantly harassed and we have nothing to survive," said Hawa Kamara, 35, who lost her husband during the conflict.

Sierra Leone's war was one of the most brutal in modern African history. Children were kidnapped, drugged and forced to fight while rebels hacked the limbs off civilians and sometimes carved their initials into their victims' backs.

Five years after the war, Sierra Leone ranks as the least developed country in the world, according to U.N. statistics. More than 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

"I have to stay here because I have nothing left in my country," said Burder Wandi, 19, who has searched in vain for his parents since the end of the war and earns a living working in a Kissidougou hotel.

Sierra Leone | Africa - Reuters.com