Blemieplay, Nimba County, Liberia -- Yyes Gbah, 33, was tending to his field in Zouan-Hounien, a rural town in Ivory Coast near the border with Liberia, earlier this month when he was suddenly attacked by a group of machete-wielding men. When his brother Romain went looking for him hours later, he received the devastating news from a group of people who had witnessed the assault: Yves was dead.
Fearing for his own life, he gathered his family along with a few belongings and fled across the border into Liberia.
Romain is not alone. Over 30,000 people have fled to Liberia after widespread violence broke out in Ivory Coast following disputed presidential elections there. Ivory Coast's incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to step down despite declarations by the United Nations and the African Union that he had been defeated by Alassane Ouattara, the leader of the opposition, in the November 2010 election.
The current crisis comes just as Ivory Coast is slowly recovering from a devastating 2002-2007 civil war.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is responding to the crisis by providing medical services to the thousands of refugees who arrive daily in Liberia. IRC medical team members are working closely with Liberian health workers and community volunteers to treat patients and head off outbreaks of disease, such as measles and cholera. Four IRC-supported health clinics located near the border with Ivory Coast treat refugees for a range of illnesses, including malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections. The IRC has also delivered a two-month supply of medicines to the clinics. Anticipating that the refugee population will continue to grow, the IRC is stepping up preventive measures such as hygiene education for newly arrived refugees.
"With the number of refugees increasing every day it's critical that we prevent outbreaks of disease," said Dr. Folaranmi Ogunbowale, who oversees the IRC's emergency health care response on the border. "People live in crowded, unsanitary conditions and are forced to drink contaminated water, so an outbreak of cholera or measles is a very real threat."
The IRC has been on the ground in Liberia and Ivory Coast since 1996 and 2003 respectively, assisting refugees and displaced people during the region's long civil wars.
"We are on the frontline of this response," said Allan Freedman, the IRC's director of programs in Liberia." Half of the refugees are in an area where the IRC has provided health services for years, making us very well prepared to respond to the crisis."
The United Nations estimates that more than 500 Ivorian refugees cross into Liberia every day, straining the already strapped resources of some two dozen villages on the Liberian side of the border. Peter Manklee, the village chief of Blemieplay, said that residents there had welcomed the refugees, with whom they share a similar background and ethnicity. But he warned that food may quickly run out.
"We have too many mouths to feed now," he said. "The food we have saved will be finished and when the rains start in April we won't be able to produce more rice and cassava."
Both refugees and villagers say that since the refugee influx began they have been able to eat only one meal a day. Health is also a growing concern. Many people in the village suffer from life-threatening diseases like malaria and acute diarrhea, Manklee said. The nearest health clinic, one of the four IRC-supported facilities in the area, is five hours walk away. Normally, patients are carried there on homemade stretchers.
Under a tall acacia tree, Blemieplay's only source of refuge from the blistering sun, a team of IRC health workers have travelled to the village to set up a makeshift clinic. Hundreds of people, Liberian and Ivorian, have lined up for treatment. The village children, clasping the hands of their mothers, anxiously await their turn to receive vaccinations against measles, yellow fever, tetanus and polio.
Blemieplay, like most border towns, is accessible only by poor roads or narrow jungle paths, making it difficult for aid workers to reach them. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, plans to establish a refugee camp in the eastern Liberian town of Bahn, some 50 kilometers from the border. UNHCR estimates it will take at least a month for the camp to be ready. Meanwhile, the refugees in Blemieplay and elsewhere along the border are stuck in limbo--unable or afraid to return home. Until then, they are receiving welcome support from local Liberians--and the IRC.
"We don't know how long the crisis will last," Dr. Folaranmi Ogunbowale said. "But given the volatile history of this region, we have to be prepared for the worst."
To learn more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Liberia visit Rescue.org/liberia.