By Sulaiman Momodu
Every year on 20 June, the world pauses to reflect on the plight of millions of people who have been displaced mainly by war and some other causes. Called World Refugee Day, initially the day was Africa Refugee Day. The then Organization of Africa Unity, now the Africa Union, started Africa Refugee Day in 1975 for obvious reasons. Africa was one of the leading producers of refugees in the world. In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly in solidarity with Africa declared 20 June as World Refugee Day.
At the time when it was Africa Refugee Day up to when it was declared a global event, Sierra Leone was in the throes of a civil war. People who barely knew the name of the president of the country at the time became innocent victims of a man-made calamity which claimed the lives of thousands and made several others destitute for life.
Some twelve years after peace was restored in Sierra Leone, there are still dozens of Sierra Leonean refugees in the West Africa region. For hundreds of Sierra Leoneans who maintain their refugee status, some of whom had been living as refugees since 1991, one easily wonders why they cannot just return home. Some of them definitely would if they could.
I have been privileged to talk with some of the remaining Sierra Leonean refugees in various countries in the region – Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria etc. While some are still hoping for a brighter future through resettlement programmes, the stories of others are pathetic. A middle-aged woman told me her husband was killed in her full view and other family members were also killed. She was lucky to escape. “Where and how will I begin if I returned home?” she asked.
As someone who patronizes the Sierra Leone movie industry, sometime last year I bought a Sierra Leonean movie called “Refugees” with Jimmy Bangura (Jimmy B) as the main actor. Quite a moving narrative, the movie basically depicts the humiliation and sufferings Sierra Leoneans underwent during life in refuge. I think it is a good effort which people in authority must watch. Sierra Leoneans became refugees mainly as a result of bad governance.
From last year, fast forward to this year; recently, I bought another Sierra Leonean movie called “Next president”. The movie is about who succeeds the president amid systemic corruption as deeply corrupt government officials spend time with sweethearts in merry making. In a BBC interview as the movie, which features the Kru Bay slum in Freetown, was premiered, the All People’s Congress minister of information quickly distanced the movie from what is happening in the country. In the words of the minister, the movie does not “remotely” resemble what is happening in Sierra Leone.
Although the minister may distance the government from “Next president”, the way the government has handled the Ebola outbreak for instance points to the fact that the guns may be silent but the causes of death are still on the prowl. The last time, a Cholera outbreak killed hundreds in the country. This time, as the death toll from Ebola increases, instead of the emphasis being on what practical measures should be taken not to contract the virus and providing adequate protective materials to medics, the quick and best solution the authorities came up with rather hysterically was to close the border when the virus is already in the country and on the rampage. Come on, how can you close a very porous border to prevent Ebola virus? Unconfirmed reports indicate that some compatriots are crossing from Sierra Leone, which boasts of a functioning free health care system, to seek medical attention in neighbouring countries. A few days ago, the health minister in Guinea also accused Sierra Leone and Liberia of not doing enough to curtail Ebola as a regional health issue. While war uproots populations, it will be really sad to witness another displacement of populations as a result of health concerns, in this case, a deadly virus. Imagine the spectacle of thousands of people on the run from a viral infection. Already, some Sierra Leoneans are reportedly moving from Ebola outbreak areas to places they consider safe.
The Global Trends, the UN refugee agency leading annual report on the state of forced displacement states that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people. With the report showing that 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013, countries like Sierra Leone will do the world a great favour if conscious efforts are made to improve the living conditions of the people and not create another environment that would lead to people fleeing. This year’s tagline is – 1 family torn apart by war is too many. Wars agonising separate families, create separated children and cause untold anguish.
Some Sierra Leoneans are of the conviction that they are still “refugees” in their own country. We must recommit our energies to ensuring that people who flee do not fear that they will become “refugees” in their own country if they returned home, and those at Kru Bay should not think their lives were better in refugee camps. Please spare a thought for refugees around the world today even if you had never been a refugee before and remember that no one chooses to be a refugee.