Humanitarian Needs in Liberia Are Acute As Country Struggles to Regain Stability
Liberians are hopeful that the peace agreement that took root in August and the gradual deployment of U.N. peacekeepers will lead to stability and recovery in their war-ravaged land. But after 14 years of violence and destruction and the displacement of nearly one third of the country's 3.3 million people, the challenges of rehabilitating Liberia and helping the uprooted return home are immense.
Liberia is in a state of acute crisis. The majority of the population has no access to health care. Malnutrition is endemic. Disease is rampant. Few hospitals are operational. There is little to no public infrastructure: most schools have been shut down and clean water and functioning sewers are scarce. The economy is in a catastrophic state and tools and seeds have not arrived for the next planting season. The arrival of international peacekeepers is also behind schedule. And plans for the demobilization and reintegration of combatants, most of whom were forcibly conscripted as adolescents, are plagued by insufficient planning and resources. Meanwhile, clashes go on and innocent Liberians continue to be killed, maimed, raped and robbed.
The IRC is providing emergency services for tens of thousands of uprooted Liberians and will be expanding rehabilitation assistance to the villages and towns they fled, in order to facilitate their eventual return. Nicky Smith, the IRC's director in Liberia, recently discussed priority needs and IRC strategies.
Q: After more than a decade of suffering, how are Liberians coping?
Smith: The majority of people in Liberia talk about daily survival; they don't talk about living. 'Have I got enough food for my family from handouts? Will there be water at the water distribution point today? Will my daughter be safe collecting wood? What will become of my child without education?' It's our goal to help them get back to a normal life and to get assistance to their villages quickly. It’s the only way they can start rebuilding their own country.
Q: What are the plans for meeting the humanitarian needs of Liberia's war-affected population?
Smith: When fighting escalated last summer, hundreds of thousands of Liberians fled to the capital Monrovia, finding shelter in public places that were not fit to house them. Now the focus is on helping relocate them to camp settings where they can, at least in the short-term, receive better care. We're working extensively in these camps, providing health services, conducting vaccination and malaria prevention campaigns, holding education and recreational activities for children, and teaching transferable skills to adults. We've also taken a lead in aiding survivors of sexual violence - running counseling centers, providing medical screenings, treatment and referrals, and sponsoring awareness and prevention workshops. In the meantime, IRC teams are assessing needs in devastated and underserved communities. We want to begin providing essential services to Liberians who never left and be prepared to help uprooted Liberians, including refugees in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, when they eventually return home.
Q: As the process of disarming and demobilizing Liberia's fighting forces gets underway, what are the challenges in carrying out the operation and ensuring successful reintegration?
Smith: Helping the combatants return to civilian life is absolutely critical to Liberia's rehabilitation, but the process can only be successful if all the elements are in place. Disarmament can only happen in a secure environment, so it's vital that the international peacekeeping force is fully deployed now and that funding is adequate to support the program. Facilities receiving the combatants need to be equipped and staffed. And once the combatants are demobilized, community-based counseling, shelter, skills training and literacy programs need to be in place.
Q: How does the IRC intend to help?
Smith: We will be focusing assistance on children and women associated with the fighting forces. Our staff will be at demobilization sites to identify the most vulnerable who need special care. We'll be setting up interim care centers, where children will receive health care, emergency supplies, counseling, skills training and informal education, while IRC teams trace their families. The IRC will also be running specialized counseling, reproductive health care, material support and reintegration assistance for women and girls. And IRC teams will also be supporting the receiving communities, assisting with agriculture and vocational projects and reviving schools and health systems.