Dianne didn't sleep much last night.
Maybe it was the dirt floor that made her hip ache. Or the thoughts of home running through her head. It could have been Antoinette, her youngest, who wanted to nurse. Half awake, feeling for her daughter in the dark, Dianne found her, pulled her onto her chest, balanced her and dozed off to sounds of soft suckling.
She awoke in the silver light of dawn, the cold, wet air seeping through the cracks in the mud house. She burrowed deeper into a piece of cloth that served as her blanket.
It wasn't easy getting back to sleep. She tried to block out the soupy coughs and the mewling babies and the snuffling of others. Twenty-four Ivorians who fled their country call this little house in Liberia home. Around Dianne, whole families are crowded on beds and take up every inch of floor space.
Help was on the way. Plans to bring comfort to thousands of Ivorians who had fled to Liberia were in the works. But everything had happened so quickly.
As Dianne lay there staring at the light coming in through the thatch-roof, the mist whiffling through the window and the house packed with people, she wondered what was happening in her village in Ivory Coast.
Only a short time ago she had been in her field. She heard the gunshots. That's when she knew it was time to leave. She packed a few bags, rounded up her four children and headed for Liberia.
Balancing her suitcase on her head to free up her hands, her daughter strapped to her back, and corralling her other kids, she walked through the steaming Liberian jungle and asked people along the way for directions to Beatuo village. She knew the place well: She'd fled there in 2002 when Ivory Coast, once West Africa's most stable and prosperous country—and her own—had dissolved into war.
'We Were in the Same Situation'
Dianne wasn't alone on the trail. A few days before, Emilienne had walked to Beatuo with her three children. And Juliana, a young woman with four kids, also made the hike. Rebecca, a nursing mother, walked the journey with her seven children and husband.
The trickle of Ivorians into Liberia has turned into a river. Most Ivorians have fled as a precautionary measure, worried that Ivory Coast would return to war. The former president—whom the international community declared the loser of November's presidential elections—refuses to leave office. Fighting between his troops and the opposition has flared and cooled since the election.
As of March 8, according to United Nations reports, the violence in Ivory Coast has displaced between 200,000 and 300,000 people in Abidjan, the country's capital, and as many as 70,000 people from the country's western region have fled their homes and crossed into neighboring Liberia.
Most of the refugees are from the same ethnic group as their hosts. Many Liberians spent years in Ivory Coast during Liberia's 14-year civil war.
"Before, there was the war here in Liberia," says Elise Zansé, who was having her hair braided by her Liberian host. "All the people here fled and went to Ivory Coast. And now we're fleeing. We are in the same situation they were in."
Elise arrived a few days ago with her three children. She used to have a good life: traveling to Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, and buying fish for her restaurant in western Ivory Coast. Now, with the threat of violence high, Elise is adjusting to Liberian food, no electricity, going to the bathroom in the forest and the stress of wondering when she can return.
John Wongbay knows what it's like. He fled Liberia to Ivory Coast in 1990, when the civil war started, and in 2003, when it reached its bloody climax. All together, he stayed 3 years. But, he admits, all memories aren't rosy.
"Not all [Ivorians] understood our condition at the time," he says diplomatically. "They quarreled with our people when we went on their farm to cut wood."
Despite the bitter memories, plus a house full of nine members of his own family, John still threw down the welcome mat for eight Ivorians.
"We know they have problems," he says. "We are very courteous to them. We know the condition of war. When you leave your place and go to another place, we know how it feels."
John wonders how long the Ivorians will stay, but he's ready to help them, despite his own poverty, as long as it takes.
"It is very difficult," he says, referring to feeding the Ivorians. "We have cassava farms and we allow them to go there. We have small rice farms; we share with them—that will help them feed themselves."
Catholic Relief Services plans to help Liberians and Ivorians prepare land to grow rice in the coming weeks.
For Juliana Kpeu Makassa, another refugee from Ivory Coast, the days blend together. Sitting on a stool outside the house she shares with Dianne and others, she watches the circus around her: A naked baby plays in the dirt; someone is throwing laundry on the thatch-roof house to dry; Dianne stirs a cauldron of cassava dough for lunch.
"There's nothing to sell here," Juliana says. "My husband is [in Ivory Coast]. How is he finding money for food?"
There's a long pause.
Yes, she admits, she's grateful to be away from the chaos of her country—"I've never seen two presidents in a country"—but this is her second time here; she lived in this village in 2002 for a year. And she's already been here more than 3 months and is getting tired—tired of running from her home country, tired of politics, tired of being packed like sardines in the house at night.
Comfort Is Coming
That's why CRS plans to construct 1,000 temporary shelters in eight villages for refugees. Other humanitarian organizations are also building shelters and assisting the refugees with education and health.
The structures are basic: the frame is made from trees. CRS pays Liberian villagers a daily wage to cut the trees and help build the shelters. In a remote community such as Beatuo, the cash helps, and the villagers are grateful for the work.
The houses are big—about 20 feet long and 13 feet wide—with two rooms covered by a roof made from sheets of iron. Tarpaulins temporarily form the walls; the Liberian hosts can erect permanent mud walls in the future.
"That shelter will be a great help to the community," says John. He still has a lot of mouths to feed, and everyone is cramped.
As for Dianne, the nights of tossing and turning are over. She will get her own shelter. "I will be comfortable," she says. "That's what's good."
No more packed rooms, no more cold nights. Dianne and her children will finally have a little comfort.
Lane Hartill was CRS' regional officer for West Africa. Until recently, he was based in Dakar, Senegal.