Inside a U.N. “Transit Center”

Today’s slide show: Tabou

TABOU, IVORY COAST, Nov. 11, 2003—Alan, the affable flight operations manager for the World Food Program, told me to be at Abidjan’s military airport no later than 7:45 a.m. to catch the humanitarian flight to Tabou. But when I show up at the appointed hour—having skipped breakfast and raced through rush hour traffic to make it on time—there is no one else there. I am momentarily panicked that I am in the wrong part of the airport, but then I remember that this is Ivory Coast. Here, waiting has been refined to a high art. It is common in this country to arrive on time for a scheduled appointment and to be kept waiting half an hour or longer without a word of explanation or apology. If you’re unlucky, the appointment will simply have been canceled without anyone bothering to inform you.

Sure enough, an Ivorian air force officer directs me to a tiny air-conditioned waiting room just off the tarmac, and at 8:20, just 10 minutes before our scheduled departure, Alan arrives with the other passengers, one of whom expresses surprise that no one has informed me that the WFP flight never leaves on time. As it turns out, today’s delay is exceptional. The flight is held for more than two hours for security reasons as we wait for President Laurent Gbagbo’s jet to take off. Gbagbo is on his way to Accra, Ghana, to attend a summit meeting with other West African leaders to discuss the stalled peace process in Ivory Coast. It is widely expected that the summit will break the current impasse between Gbagbo’s government and the rebels.

We have to wait for Gbagbo’s plane, and Gbagbo’s plane has to wait for Gbagbo, who is apparently running behind schedule. While I wait, I have a chance to speak to Gbagbo’s spokesman, Silvere Nebout, who, like the rest of us, is waiting. One of Nebout’s deputies presents me with an English-language media kit, prepared especially for the Accra summit, that includes a table listing the number of concessions Gbagbo has made as part of the peace process, compared with the number the rebels have made. Of course, the table indicates that Gbagbo has made vastly more. Nebout tells me the government would like to see the United Nations play a greater role in Ivory Coast. I note that the French, who currently have 4,000 troops in the country under a U.N. Security Council mandate, seem cool to the idea. “France is like our parent, but even a parent knows that eventually your child grows up and must leave,” replies Nebout’s deputy.

After Gbagbo’s plane finally departs, we are hustled out onto tarmac where we are greeted by our friendly Russian flight crew and board a small twin-engine turboprop. Peering down at the impenetrable green canopy as we soar over the dense rain forest that straddles the Ivorian-Liberian border, it is easy to understand how various rebel armies have been able to operate with impunity here. Finally, we land in Tabou, a small town on the Atlantic coast, about 20 miles from the Liberian border.

Liberian refugees in the Tabou camp
Liberian refugees in the Tabou camp

After checking into drab rooms at the Hotel Côtiérie—air-conditioning but no running water and plenty of insects—my translator Timothee and I head off to visit the large Liberian refugee camp just outside of town. The camp is down a long muddy, dirt track and is surrounded by a large wooden fence. According to the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the sprawling tent city inside, complete with its school and large medical clinic, isn’t a refugee camp at all. It’s a “transit center,” a term the U.N. agency uses for facilities designed to house refugees overnight while they are in the process of being repatriated. That is, in fact, how this place began life, and the designation probably still provides some comfort to the Ivorian government, which has never wanted refugee camps on its soil. But the idea that Tabou is still a mere “transit center” is just a convenient fiction. More than 3,500 Liberians currently call the place home, and no one has been repatriated from here in over six months.

The history of the Tabou camp parallels the sad tale of Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast. The old section, which consists of low, rectangular wooden structures called “booths,” was built in 1997, when many of the refugees who had fled the first Liberian civil war were returning to Liberia. Within three years, most of those who wanted to go home had done so, and the transit center was no longer needed, so the UNHCR closed it. But in September 2002, the civil war in Ivory Coast began. In western Ivory Coast, the Ivorian rebels made an alliance with fighters loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor, and they began attacking southward. Last New Year’s Day, the rebels overran Grabo, a city just 30 miles north of Tabou. Although only some of the fighters participating in the attack were Liberian, the Grabo offensive stirred up tremendous hostility against those Liberian refugees still living in southwestern Ivory Coast. Ivorians burned their homes and businesses and, fearing for their lives, 1,000 Liberians sought refuge in the courtyard of the UNHCR compound in Tabou.

Unsure of what to do, the UNHCR and its local NGO partner, GTZ, hurriedly began renovating the old transit center on the outskirts of town. By the end of April, they had used the center to help repatriate 2,400 refugees, and only 69 were still living there. It looked as though the camp might once again be closed. And then, in mid-May, disaster struck: Fighting erupted in Liberia yet again, and a flood of refugees poured back into Ivory Coast. Many Ivorians in Tabou called for the border to be closed, but to its credit, the local government said no. The UNHCR built six more shelters, 40 latrines, and 13 showers at the Tabou camp, doubling its capacity to 1,000 persons. But the refugees kept coming, and the UNHCR had no more room to expand the center. The living conditions became more and more desperate inside the overcrowded camp. With help from the Ivorian authorities, the UNHCR petitioned local village chiefs for more land. After much debate, the chiefs granted the agency 25 acres on which GTZ started construction of 30 tents—each of which can house 100 people—as well as 120 latrines and 120 showers. GTZ also drilled eight wells, but uncertainty over the safety of the water has meant that these can only be used for washing and cleaning, while drinking water is trucked in daily from elsewhere.

While the camp’s expansion has alleviated overcrowding, life for the refugees here remains hard. They complain about the poor quality of the food—which consists primarily of rice and bean soup—and the lack of privacy. Many claim to have developed health problems since arriving at the camp. But perhaps worst of all is the sheer boredom of being stuck there. At first, the government insisted that all work at the camp had to be done by Ivorians. While that policy has now changed, and a few Liberians have found jobs in Tabou, most of the refugees say they have nothing to occupy their days. They claim that if they leave the camp to go into town, they are harassed by the local gendarmes. “None of the refugees wants to be here,” says James Guanue, one of the refugees who arrived in May. “Everybody is still in distress.” The UNHCR says it is reluctant to make living conditions in the camp too pleasant for fear of attracting thousands of refugees currently being harbored in local villages. “Frankly, if they don’t like it here, fine: there’s the door,” says Anne Dolan, the American who runs the UNHCR office in Tabou.

Dolan may seem jaded, but she has a point. Refugees frequently exaggerate their grievances. And as bad as camp life is, it is far better than the conditions they faced back in Liberia. Talking to the refugees, I hear tale after tale of trauma and misery. (A note about this: I thought interviewing Liberians would be a cinch. After all, we both speak English. Well, at least I speak English. As it turns out, many of the refugees speak a pigeon version of the language in which a lot of prepositions and sometimes even verbs are omitted. As a result, I find that I often need another Liberian to act as a translator for me just to get my questions across. For instance, the basic question, “How long have you been living here in Tabou?” is met with blank stares until it is converted to, “How long you stay Tabou?”)

Jane Zarway Gleweah (right) with other refugees
Jane Zarway Gleweah (right) with other refugees

Still, despite the occasional language difficulties, the refugees’ stories are compelling. For example, Jane Zarway Gleweah fled Monrovia with her cousin in late June, crowding into the hold of an old fishing boat with scores of other refugees. They spent 15 desperate days on the water before finally reaching Abidjan and being transferred here. A sister, a brother, and an uncle had all been killed during the war, and she had lost contact with her five grown children. “At least there is no fighting here,” Gleweah tells me. Then there is 28-year-old Hadja Cisse. Cisse says she was captured by Gen. Bone, one of the more infamous rebel commanders, who kept her captive for a month, raping her almost daily. She eventually escaped and fled to Tabou by ship in late July. Now the camp’s doctors have told her she is five months pregnant. “I don’t want to have a baby here all alone, but what can I do?” she says. Like many refugees here, Cisse is begging to be resettled somewhere else. “Any part of the world, I don’t care as long as I can live a better life,” she says. No one at the Tabou center wants to go back to Liberia—at least not now. “Maybe in a decade I’ll go back,” one refugee tells me. “Maybe by then there will be peace.”