Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Refugee camp spawns worst nightmares

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I am Liberian and I turn 30 in June. But do I say I am 30 years old? Honestly, no.

I was born in 1982, before the civil war erupted in Liberia in 1990. At that time I was eight years old. Between then and age 25 I call wasted years, struggling to survive and running for my life. So no, I do not say 30 years old.

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The Liberian civil war was an ethnic crisis and my parents were from rival tribes, meaning my mom's tribe could eventually kill my dad's people, so we were all at risk.

Shortly after my father was killed, simply because he refused to turn us over to his tribe's soldiers, we decided to seek refuge at the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Accra, Ghana, West Africa, in 1999.

Like many others who fled the brutal civil war in Liberia, the Buduburam Refugee Camp is where our worst nightmares started.

The government of Ghana and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Liberian refugees established the camp in 1990. It was supposed to be temporary, but today an estimated 40,000 remain there.

In most refugee camps, women and children are most vulnerable, and Buduburam was no exception. Girls aged 12 to 16 were being raped daily. Some girls consent to sex for food from adult males who excuse their abuses by claiming they are feeding girls.

Sanitation is a problem. The very few toilet facilities in camp are being commercialized because they are not sufficient to serve the ever-increasing refugee populace. The uses of these facilities are categorized as follows: VIPs, ordinary, special and flush toilets.

If you cannot afford any of the above services, you walk 10 to 15 minutes to the bushes to defecate with the possibility of getting bitten by a snake or other dangerous species. Drainages are clogged, garbage is not properly disposed of and flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. Malaria is on the rise.

As a result of the increased population and the water shortage in Ghana, water becomes very expensive. Without pipe-borne water in camp, trucks transport water for sale. A bucket of water (eight litres) is sold for 20 to 30 Ghanian pesewa, about C$1. Those who cannot afford to pay go without bathing or drinking for hours and days.

There is no relief assistance from the UNHCR for refugees of late. One wonders how they survive. Most survive at the altruistic whim of relatives and friends abroad (the West).

Life is very difficult at the camp.

I was there and experienced first-hand the horrors, living with former fighters who fled the war, struggling to make ends meet and the suffering, starvation and deaths.

Back in 2003, before my very own eyes, a little boy at age 12 died at a local clinic from hunger. He had not eaten for four or five days and went unnoticed. Death as such was not surprising because living at the camp is like being on a death row. Waking up to news that a best friend is dead was a normal thing for us; in fact, we called it "Missing in Action."

Through it all there are expectations -- every refugee in the Buduburam Camp prays that one day hope will be restored to them and they will have a chance to travel to a better country, like Canada. I said the same prayer and God sent help from five churches in Carman to get us out. Today, our lives have been transformed -- from drinking dirty water to having access to pure and clean water, from living in shelters (called tanks) made of tarps to living in houses, from primitive conditions to having access to modern technologies.

All of it restored our sense of belonging, having the right to participate in society and freedom of speech.

Yes, freedom of speech!

Today I can openly say the prime minister of Canada is not a good man without fear of being killed or prosecuted.

I would have never thought it was possible to speak against a government official openly and go free.

Canada made it possible.

There are numbers of refugees out there wishing that this chapter will someday be written in their lives.

Christian Weah, who came to Winnipeg in 2007, has a practical nursing diploma and medical office administration diploma. Married, he is a second-year student at the University of Winnipeg with the goal of becoming a family doctor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 A11

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