Gluee Teah walked through the forest for a day and crossed a river to escape the political turmoil that is gripping Ivory Coast, burdened by her two young daughters and an unborn child.
“I am nine months pregnant,” she said, as her three-year-old daughter sucked on the tattered edge of her dress in this Liberian border town. “There is not much I can do. Who will help me take care of my children?”
Teah is among the more than 16 000 Ivorians who have fled their country to neighbouring Liberia since a November 28 election, fearing that an ugly dispute over who won the vote will rekindle the civil war of 2002-03.
The United Nations is preparing for the number to double to 30 000. It is airlifting food from emergency stocks, readying shelters, and racing to improve access to clean water to prevent the spread of disease.
But the refugees arriving in the hundreds each day say many are sleeping in the open and have little to eat, while the Liberians hosting them fear rising tensions in their communities.
“We are appealing to the international community to help us with food and shelter,” said Mcgbein Sammie Atu, appointed spokesman for the refugees in Old Luguatuo. “We have no food. How do you expect us to live?”
In nearby Yolla, Marie Camara said her four children had not eaten in two days and that she had been struggling to find kola nuts in the forest to sell or trade at the market.
“We did not come here to die,” she said.
Laurent Gbagbo has refused to give in to international pressure to step down after last month’s election in Ivory Coast despite provisional results showing his rival Alassane Ouattara with an eight percentage-point win. West African regional bloc ECOWAS has threatened to oust him by force if he doesn’t leave quietly, and the rebels still holding Ivory Coast’s north after the civil war have said they are ready to fight.
A Ouattara-appointed ambassador to the United Nations said this week the country is on the “brink of genocide”.
While there have been no reports of refugees moving into other Ivory Coast neighbours, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent said on Thursday it was seeking donations to help prepare for the possibility.
“Given the continued political crisis, an influx of people is also possible in other countries bordering Cote d’Ivoire, such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana,” it said.
An official at the United Nations refugee agency was not available to comment.
“OBAMA, HELP US”
The Ivory Coast standoff turned violent in mid-December when pro-Ouattara marchers tried to seize the state broadcasting building and clashed with security forces loyal to Gbagbo in a confrontation that left at least 20 people dead.
Another 150 have died since, according to the UN, which has condemned evidence of human rights abuses, including killings, torture and kidnappings.
Rebels still controlling the north of Ivory Coast after the 2002-03 civil war have said they are ready to fight alongside West African states if they launch an intervention. In the Liberian border town of Duoplay, dozens of Ivorian refugees huddled next to a radio, anxious for news from home.
“What is happening in our country?” said Couloubaily Mamadou, one of the refugees. “What does Gbagbo want to do? This man wants to destroy our country.”
“We are also calling on US President Barack Obama and the Russian president to help talk with him. If that is not done, Ivory Coast will be like Somalia,” he said. “We are appealing to these powerful word leaders.” At a UN refugee registration centre, officials said hundreds of people were arriving daily, putting strain on local food and water resources.
An elder in Yolla named Mehn said villagers had shared all they could and were also at risk of starvation.
“We do not want a problem in Liberia,” he said. “We have shared all that we have and now it is finished. We will also starve. It will become dog-eat-dog.”
A refugee crisis could destabilise a region trying to heal from three civil wars in a decade. Joseph Gbeedeh, a youth leader in the Liberian town of Gborplay — where former Liberian President Charles Taylor launched his rebellion — said locals were fearful that violence could spill over the border.
“The rebels are right across the border, and they could change their minds tomorrow,” he said. “We are vulnerable. They could march right in here and do anything,” he said. Barne Goea, an 85-year-old refugee, said he was angry about the situation in his country.
“I have seen many presidents and I am at the point of death,” he said, while waiting in line to register with the United Nations. “I think Gbagbo is destroying our country.”