By Dan Izenberg
The Jerusalem Post
February 9, 2007
Ninety refugees from war-torn Liberia, including 20 children who were born here and adults who have lived here for up to 17 years, are due to be sent home on March 31, after the UN decreed that Liberia was no longer a danger zone.Virtually all of the refugees believe that going back to Liberia means certain death, and have asked the government to extend their status as temporary refugees beyond the deadline.
"If I return to Liberia," said Ayouba Kenneh, the "president" of the closely-knit group, "the murderers of my family will almost certainly try to kill me to get rid of a potential witness who could testify against them in court and make them pay for their atrocities."
According to Kenneh, in the middle of the night of December 31, 1990, members of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attacked the county of Grand Gedeh, where he lived. In front of his eyes, they killed his father and uncles, raped and killed three of his sisters and shot his older brother after discovering that he was a Muslim.
The civil war, which had broken out a year earlier, was primarily a religious and ethnic struggle. Kenneh, like most of the refugees in Israel, belongs to the minority Mandingo tribe. The families' assailants were from the much larger Krhin tribe.
According to Kenneh, he was taken captive by an NPFL official called Ghawo, who had allegedly owed $800 to Kenneh's father. Ghawo locked Kenneh up in a room and told him, "You will never live to tell this story. Tomorrow, I will put your heart in my soup and eat it."
Ghawo managed to escape and marched through the bush for three weeks until reaching the Ivory Coast. Eventually, he took a boat to Egypt.
On October 16, 1997, he crossed the border into Israel.
At first, Kenneh lived in Tel Aviv as an illegal sojourner. It took him three years to learn that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintained an office in Jerusalem and that, as a citizen of Liberia, he fell under its protection.
After the outbreak of civil war in Liberia in 1989, the UNHCR in Geneva declared Liberia an unsafe country. Its international representatives asked their host countries to grant temporary refugee status to anyone who had arrived in the country from Liberia. Israel agreed, as it has to similar requests regarding five other African countries.
As a "temporary refugee," Kenneh was given a work permit and a letter from the UNHCR attesting to his legal status in the country. As long as the UN classified Liberia as an "unsafe country," Kenneh and all the other Liberians could live and work in Israel with impunity. Since then, he has earned a living cleaning houses and married Dalma, an immigrant laborer from the Philippines.
In 2004, however, the Liberian civil war officially ended with the overthrow of president Charles Taylor, and the UN sent a peace-keeping force of 15,000 troops to restore order in the chaotic country. Last year, a new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was chosen in democratic elections.
In view of these developments, UNHCR headquarters in Geneva decided to remove Liberia from its list of unsafe countries. Last June, Israeli representative Michael Bavly announced that UNHCR was withdrawing its request to the Israeli government to continue offering temporary protection to the Liberians in its midst.
The following month, the Interior Ministry informed the refugees they must leave Israel by March 31. However, it offered each one the opportunity to appeal individually, on the grounds of exceptional personal circumstances, to be recognized as a refugee.
But the members of the community are traumatized by their nightmarish experiences in Liberia and convinced that their lives would still be in danger if they returned.
Kenneh's experiences during the civil war are not unique. Another refugee, Asatu Ture, saw her father killed by rebel forces. She and her sister were raped and taken away to be sex slaves for three months before she managed to escape. Miraculously, Ture and her husband, who were separated during the fighting, found each other in Israel. Last year she gave birth to twin girls.
Amarah Sirayon, 37, fled Nigeria after neighbors tried to kill him because he had fought with Charles Taylor's forces.
"Nigeria is not safe for anyone who fought for Taylor," he said. "People who suffered during his rule want revenge. Some of my friends have already been killed."
Frightened by the prospect of being forced to leave their safe haven, the Liberians hired Tel Aviv attorney Ari Syrquin to help them.
Syrquin, whose regular clientele includes businessmen involved in international trade, told The Jerusalem Post that helping the refugees was a "once in a lifetime opportunity." Indeed, he stood out, in his stylish suit and tie, walking along the run-down streets of Tel Aviv's old central bus station, where many of the immigrant workers live.
Liberia was still in chaos, Syrquin said. There was no properly organized national police or army to maintain law and order, he said, and the UN had extended the mandate of its peacekeeping force by another six months because of the unstable situation.
Syrquin cited a recent report by Los Angeles Times reporter Robyn Dixon, who described the potentially explosive situation in Liberia.
"With thousands more refugees expected to return to Liberia in the coming months, the land problem is a potential tinderbox that could undermine this nation's fragile peace," Dixon wrote. "But in a country where 80 percent of the people live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 85%, it's just one of many issues that could ignite violence, dragging in the ready pool of former combatants."
Bavly, the Israeli representative to UNHCR, said there was nothing extraordinary about the situation in Liberia today.
"It's like all the countries in Africa, in fact better than some of them," he said.
Bavly also said there was nothing significant about the fact that the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force had been extended.
"They extended it to be able to check that everything is quiet and, so far, everything is quiet," he said.
Bavly said it was important for the UN to remove countries from the "temporarily unsafe" category, as soon as it concluded that the security situation had improved sufficiently, so that the countries it asked to grant temporary refugee status would trust it.
When a government is confident that the UN will only ask for that status as long as it is truly necessary, it will be more willing to grant it, he said.
Kenneh is not convinced. "The people that killed my family are murderers and there is no rule of law in Liberia," he said. "They will kill me to shut me up. It's because of this that I'm still afraid to go back."