Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Coming home to Guinea

Since the change of Government in April 1984, the two million Guineans abroad have begun to return home. But they are finding their country in ruins. A rehabilitation programme has been set. This article reprinted from REFUGEE, a UNCHR publication, tells the story.
After 26 years of political representation, economic stagnation and social isolation, the West African State of Guinea is virtually in ruins. Little investment or development has taken place for many years. The towns are dilapidated and the roads crumbling away under the weight of rusty, rundown lorries. Modern enterprise hardly exists. Medical services are rudimentary, with doctors powerless to heal because of an almost total lack of drugs and equipment. Education has suffered from an oppressive emphasis on ideology, mistrust of the intelligentsia and a lack of contact with the outside world. The administrative and managerial infrastructure is pitifully weak.

Yet Guinea retains the two greatest assets of any nation - its land and its people, a land blessed for the most part with great natural fertility, and a people whose resilience, dignity and courage are happily unimpaired. Since the change of government on April 3, 1984, a new spirit of national rejuvenation is in the air. Ministers and senior officials are not afraid to talk openly of their inexperience and the fragility of inherited institutions. They know that the help of the international community is essential to the task of national reconstruction and the rehabilitation of society as a whole.

During the long years of misrule, up to two million Guineans left their native land for one or other of the six neighbouring states of Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal or Guinea-Bissau. They came from every walk of life, from intellectuals to traders, artisans and peasant farmers. Many sought refuge from individual or ethnic persecution, while others, having left without authority, were reluctant to go back for fear of sub- sequent arrest. Now it is possible for those who want to to return in safety and, within only a few weeks of taking power, the new Government of Guinea, turned to UNHCR for help in bringing it about.

UNHCR has only a limited mandate to assist former refugees after repatriation to their native land. The most that it can do is help to smooth the path towards successful reintegration for those in need. Within these lists, however, there is no better cause than contributing to the success of voluntary repatriation and helping to create the right conditions for return. UNHCR was, therefore, quick to respond to the extent of its ability to the Guinean appeal. A preliminary visit took place in May and this led to a full programming mission at the beginning of July

The mission discussed the situation with both central and regional authorities as well as the representatives of other United Nations agencies in Guinea. The unhappy economic plight of the country is only too apparent and has recently been aggravated by an earthquake, an epidemic of rinderpest among cattle and by drought. The return of Guineans from exile has placed an additional strain on scanty national resources and on the basic health and community services which are hardly able to function even without, let alone with, the impact of returnees. Since the majority of those returning are going to the rural areas, the mission visited some of these areas to see conditions for itself.

Getting around in Guinea is not exactly easy, particularly during the rains; the domestic air service was not functioning, there is no passenger rail service and many roads in the remoter areas are impassable. Even the available road vehicles are of doubtful capability over long distances on rough roads, and there were two breakdowns in as many days. Nevertheless, the mission was able to see some of the realities of Guinean rural life as well as visit an important border post at Forecariah which is a major crossing point for those coming back from Sierra Leone. The officials at these border posts keep very careful records of those entering Guinea by number, nationality and sex so that the mission was able to verify that a sizeable number of Guineans had come back since the change of government in early April.

Bearing in mind that there are many such border posts on the frontiers with six different states and that many unrecorded crossings must take place on paths or tracks, it is clear that a substantial movement of people has taken place and will continue in the months ahead.

During the mission's travels, its members shivered (in mid-summer) in mist and rain at altitudes of well over 1,000 metres. It visited hospitals whose staff were helpless in the face of an acute shortage of medicines and appliances; one hospital pharmacy had nothing in it, another only iodine and mercurochrome, less than half an ancient bottle of each. No antibiotics, no bandages, no ambulances, no treat- ment except prayer and common sense. We saw in rural markets an over- abundance of mangoes and pineapples, destined mostly to rot for want of proper marketing arrangements, but a desperate lack of agricultural implements and basic tools - nothing which even the humblest peasant farmer could use to till a field or build a dwelling hut.

The movement back to Guinea has been, and will almost certainly continue to be, of an informal and spontaneous kind. There are mercifully no camps, no reception centres, no huddled groups of dejected repatriants waiting to be escorted home. Those who return do so quietly, unobtrusively and without complaints. They make their own way to their former homes and only in a few cases (some of whom we interviewed) have the local authorities had to provide for their direct support. Given this situation, the mission felt that whatever modest assistance UNHCR was able to extend should concentrate on basic measures to sustain the most needy during the initial period of their return.

Based on the mission's findings, a basic programme of assistance has been prepared and will be implemented with voluntary agency support between mid-August and the end of 1984. At a cost of nearly US$1,200,000, the assistance will cover the distribution of 12 of UNHCR's comprehensive emergency health units to local hospitals together with eight ambulances to allow access between hospitals, rural clinics and patients' homes. The health kits are available in pre-packed form and each is theoretically sufficient to meet the medical needs of 10,000 people over a period of three months. Since, as described earlier, present medical facilities are almost non-existent, these kits are an essential element in meeting the basic health requirements of those who return.

In addition to medical support, the programme also provides for the issue of 100,000 blankets for distribution — particularly in the higher-altitude areas of heavy rainfall and, as the cold season approaches, increasing cold. UNHCR will also supply 20,000 sets of essential implements containing hoes, machetes, axes and saws for basic agricultural and building use.

The programme is, of course, a modest one. It is designed to cover only essential needs; most of the hard work of re-integration must be done by the people themselves and since Guineans in general have so little, it would be unfair to distort the social pattern by large-scale handouts to returnees. The government is approaching the World Food Programme separately for food assistance, so that the UNHCR pro- gramme has not taken this important element into account. Finally, a massive task of economic reconstruction and development must clearly be undertaken but, at the international level, this is for the development rather than the humanitarian agencies to support.

Coming home from exile has always been a painful process as these Ghanains found out after being expelled from Nigeria last year.

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