Posts Tagged ‘Berlin Wall’

Nine days in July, 1938

July 20, 2020

Part 2 – Jahnzon

It’s the end of March 2011. We (that is yours truly and photographer Martin Waalboer) are in the tiny Liberian hamlet of Jahnzon, close to the border with Côte d’Ivoire. What we are witnessing is an exodus across the Cavally River that separates the two countries here. But contrary to what you may think, the exodus is not away from very poor Liberia still recovering from 14 years of gang warfare. This is an exodus in the opposite direction: from relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. Jahnzon is the first stop and when we meet Chief Moses Zé Dié to pay our respects he is at his wits’ end. It is pouring with rain as it does so often here, and there is a dire shortage of accommodation.

“They have been coming in large numbers,” says the Chief. “I cannot refuse them; they are our cousins. But I have no more place to lodge them. All the houses are full. I tell you, I now feel like a refugee myself…”

The Ivorians were fleeing the town of Duékoué, just across the border, where a terrible massacre was taking place, committed in all probability by the rebel force that had begun its descent from the north of the country into the economic capital Abidjan. In all probability, because this crime has never been properly investigated. What the refugees coming into Jahnzon were saying that they had heard shooting and that was for them enough reason to grab a few belongings and rush across the border into the relative safety of Liberia.

At the UNHCR refugee camp in Bahn, not far from Jahnzon, Hortense Gba is telling me her story. Here’s hoping she is doing well, wherever she is. Pic: Martin Waalboer.

This was the final phase of a series of West African wars that had started six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell. Not even sixty kilometers from Jahnzon (as the crow flies) is the equally unassuming town of Buutuo, where on Christmas Eve 1989 a few bewildered inhabitants saw a group of about 150 men, armed to the teeth, cross the Cestos River from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. When I went to Buutuo to collect their memories the good people of that town said that they were told that this group was heading for the capital Monrovia. “We told them: well, good luck with that…”. Months later, Charles Taylor and Prince Yormie Johnson, the two main gang leaders, had taken control of Monrovia, causing death and destruction wherever they went.

The wars careened through Sierra Leone and Guinea and eventually returned to Côte d’Ivoire, where the deadly sequence had originated. It would be, at least for now, the last roll of the deadly dice in this densely forested region. The violence caused hundreds of thousands of refugees who, for the most part, did exactly what the rich and powerful nations of the world wanted them to do: stay away from their affluent shores.

In her book, Polman details how that works out, especially in the post Cold War era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 the rich world’s policy was more emphatically than ever to “Keep ‘Em Out And Over There”. UN agencies like the refugee organisation UNHCR are being paid to carry out that brief. The old joke before the Wall came down, was that the Russians would surely be coming…one by one, as dissidents chased from their country. That was still manageable, and ideologically The Right Thing To Do.

Their arrival was covered by the 1951 Convention for the Protection of Refugees, a document that was produced during the early days of the new post World War II East – West confrontation and after much tedious negotiation. The main issue was that only truly real genuine refugees, those who had political reasons to leave their countries, had the right to be granted asylum – and the hope was of course that those numbers would remain manageably small; the unspoken assumption was that the people most likely to be covered by this new Convention would be refugees from the Communist Bloc . (Polman points out that when the Soviets overran Hungary in 1956 the main thrust of Europe’s refugee policy was to keep the numbers of the truly real genuine refugees they could admit as manageably small as possible.) True to form, the United States made a very crass distinction between those who deserved asylum and those who did not: the ones fortunate enough to flee autocratic and Communist Cuba were welcome to establish their exile communities in Miami, Florida; those unfortunate enough to come from Haiti, a country that – like Syria today – was run by a venal, violent and corrupt family were sent back: they came from a country that belonged to Our Side…

Yes, it is Antonio Guterres, head of the UNHCR, visiting Bahn at roughly the same time we were there, in the company of Margrethe Løj, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Liberia. Guterres, of course, went on to become the UN Sec Gen himself, Løj moved on to South Sudan. Pic: UNHCR.

Post Cold War, the distinction between deserving and undeserving refugees disappeared completely and the objective became even more firmly aligned with the Evian Paradigm: Keep ‘Em Over There. As long as refugees fleeing war in West Africa, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East stayed in their region, all was well as far as Europe was concerned. To that end, the rich nations pay the UNHCR for the job of setting up refugee camps everywhere on a shoestring budget. Polman devotes a few chilling pages to the great philosopher Hannah Ahrendt’s reflections on camps – places where people are herded into and then either destroyed, worked to death or stored; and always forgotten. Some of these camps become veritable cities where people stay for years, if not decades. It matters not; as long as the donors’ Keep ‘Em There agenda is served, preferably on the cheap, all is well.

And if need be, adds Polman, that agenda is militarily enforced. France invented the ‘humanist’ intervention in West Africa for geo-strategic reasons but in the era after the Cold War the military-humanist intervention made a huge comeback, in support of another novel idea: ‘reception in the region’. Among the innovations tried out in those days were the so-called safe enclaves, loosely guarded by United Nation troops recruited mostly from poor countries in ever larger numbers. In Southeast Europe, this led to the disaster of Srebrenica in 1995, overlooked by Dutch UN troops. Yes, Keep ‘Em there – in the ground if need be, or in the desert sands of the Sahara or on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. In the next installment I give a few examples of the lengths to which Europe is prepared to go to keep itself ‘safe’ from refugees and migrants, a distinction that has disappeared completely as a result of Europe’s efforts to undermine, fatally, that already wafer-thin wall of protection for refugees, made in 1951.

To be continued