Clasping the hand of a young child on either side of him, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres strides across a bridge over a river separating two countries, a symbol of both hope in the future and the daunting challenges that could derail it in one of the world’s many war-torn regions. The children, wearing new white T-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Hope,’ look serious, their faces caught halfway between a diffidence born of a difficult past and the glimmer of hope for a better future. The West African scene, an iconic moment in this year’s celebration of World Refugee Day, is a microcosm of the enormous tasks facing UNHCR as it tackles the crisis of more than 8 million people around the world who have fled their countries because of conflict or oppression – in itself a mere drop in the ocean but bearer of an indelible message. “Our experience has shown that half of the countries that solve their conflicts, return to conflict within five years,” Mr. Guterres said yesterday as he led the two children and more than 120 other people across the bridge from Sierra Leone to Liberia on their return to a homeland that has only recently found a fragile calm after years of war. “That is why Liberia needs attention now, not in two or three years. We need to mobilize resources for immediate gains,” he added, meeting a convoy of 125 returnees at Liberia’s Bo Waterside area on the Mano River as they came back home from camps in Sierra Leone. There, he climbed aboard a truck with 15 refugees, arriving 40 minutes later at the Sinje transit centre, where the returnees were to spend a night before heading to their home villages. “Everybody has a right to a place called home,” Mr. Guterres told them, while warning of the difficulties ahead and calling for more help from the international community. He said Liberia deserved that help after 14 years of war and noted that the impoverished country was setting an example by hosting almost 20,000 refugees from neighbouring countries. Since October 2004, when a ceasefire back by UN peacekeepers ended the war between rival factions, UNHCR has helped repatriate some 69,000 Liberians, including 14,000 from Sierra Leone. As of the end of 2005, the number of refugees worldwide reached a 26-year low, dropping last year alone by 1.1 million. But that still left 8.4 million people needing urgent UNHCR aid in a country not their own.
“The numbers of internally displaced persons currently sheltered at the UNMISS protection of civilians site in Bentiu are swelling,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said referring to the acronym for the UN Mission in the country.More than 12,000 civilians are currently seeking refuge, he noted. The majority of them are women and children.The figure comes one day after reports that opposition forces took control of the state capital, Bentiu. UNMISS today received reports that anti-Government forces are also now controlling Guit and Rubkona Counties in Unity State.UN military patrols also identified thousands of displaced civilians gathered in the vicinity of Bentiu Hospital and the compound of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).Later in the day, an UNMISS official confirmed that the Mission had managed to get all remaining civilians out of the hospital and into a safe location.Since the hostilities that erupted between the Government and opposition forces last December, an average of 75,000 civilians have found refuge from violence in UN bases across the country.UN ‘blue helmets’ conducted a number of patrols yesterday, including in Bentiu and Rubkona, where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) headquarters was described as “empty” with a few SPLA soldiers deployed in Bentiu.Looting of shops by civilians in the state capital was also observed. The patrol also witnessed some 40 bodies on the streets in Bentiu, Mr. Dujarric said.Speaking to journalists yesterday in Juba, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer said the number of people seeking shelter in Bentiu doubled over the past few days to at least 9,000 people.Mr. Lanzer said he felt “a certain sense of outrage”, as UNMISS, UN agencies and other aid agencies made efforts to deal with immediate consequences of the ongoing violence.About a million people in South Sudan have been forced from their homes due to the conflict. The UN continues to advocate with the country’s authorities for political and security solutions that will allow the displaced to return to their homes or seek abode in any other part of the country. read more