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LIBERIA: A Country and People “On the Move,” Just Not Very Fast
7/26/2006 3:49 PM

MONROVIA, 26 Jul 2006 (IRIN) - Liberia is “on the move” according to World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz who foresees large-scale debt relief for the war-shattered country

And its nationals too are moving, according to the UN’s refugee agency. Liberians are leaving the refugee camps that have sheltered them for up to a decade and a half to return to their villages and begin the enormous task of rebuilding.

But these moves are taking place slowly.

On his first visit to Liberia last week, Wolfowitz said that Liberia has emerged from 14 years of civil war to the threshold of large-scale debt relief under the International Monetary Fund’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, HIPC.

“I believe that Liberia is on the right track …for interim debt relief and for cancellation of the entire debt,” said Wolfowitz before leaving Liberia on Saturday.

Liberia has a US $3.7 billion debt burden, equivalent to over US $1,000 per person. Almost half of that debt is with multi-lateral lenders like the IMF and World Bank. Clearing some of the debt is essential to the future economic development of a country in tatters after a generation of fighting and political instability.

But according to Wolfowitz, it could take Liberia so long to meet the HIPC requirements that the HIPC initiative may have to be extended beyond its end of 2007 cut off date.

And as Wolfowitz talked of debt relief, UNHCR trumpeted the return of Liberian refugees from Guinea, two years after the guns fell silent.

Liberia's peacetime government has urged Liberians to retun home to help rebuiild the country and on 14 July, a UNHCR convoy returned 761 refugees from camps in Guinea. A week earlier, 755 refugees took the same route home to the northern Liberian border town of Voinjama.

This year alone UNHCR has helped over 17,500 Liberian refugees make thier way home from Guinea. That's more than in previous months but still leaves over 20,000 more Liberian refugees in the country, with more in other camps across West Africa.

Donors, led by the US, have said that they will no longer support camps that are sheltering Liberian refugees as the war is over and they should return home. At the end of the year, food distributions will stop.

Wolfowitz urged donors not to forget about Liberia and to channel their support for the country into reconstruction tasks that include restoration of 95 percent of the country’s health centres damaged in the war.

“After many years of terrible suffering and horrible wars, this country does have a chance to walk into a brighter future,” said Wolfowitz.

“I don’t for one minute underestimate the magnitude of the task. This is a country that needs almost everything and needs everything all at once and donors must step up assistance to help Liberia recover,” he said.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

Published in: LIBERIA: A Country and People “On the Move,” Just Not Very Fast, IRINNews, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 26, 2006. © IRIN.