MONROVIA, Liberia — Along a muddy border between the Ivory Coast and Liberia, Ivorian refugees pack into a small wooden boat that resembles a giant, square fruit crate. The raft fills quickly and just as quickly departs directly across the river, where a Liberian immigration officer waits to direct them on the opposite bank. The new arrivals carry nothing but the clothes they are wearing and any small plastic bags they can manage. Once on the Liberian side, they are herded into long lines and processing queues. Many will sleep outside; some will take shelter with ethnic kin, in local villages, who are themselves often struggling to survive.
Armed conflict from the Ivory Coast is spilling over its fluid western border with Liberia. And the result is the worst humanitarian crisis that West Africa has faced since 2003, when the wars ravishing Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast finally wound down.
What's unfolding now in West Africa are the warning signs of another all-out war. Off and on for almost two decades, from 1989 to 2004, rebels roamed the region, pillaging and attacking villages and displacing millions. In Sierra Leone, rebel armies routinely hacked off limbs and hands to deprive villagers of their economic potential -- their physical ability to farm. In Liberia, child soldiers, drugged and armed with old Kalashnikovs, terrorized the countryside. Tens of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers have worked for years to stitch the region back together.
The scene today, however, is darkly familiar. Elements of the old wars are surfacing again: Armed fighters are suddenly trying to cross the border from Ivory Coast into Liberia, Liberian ex-combatants are being lured to fight in the Ivory Coast, and almost half a million have been uprooted from their homes in both Liberia and the Ivory Coast, plunging the region into humanitarian crisis. Tension throughout the region is reaching a boiling point at a time when Liberia was already warily preparing for a national election. War is in the air.
The trigger came in November, when Ivory Coast's incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after losing an internationally certified election. Although international pressure has isolated Gbagbo diplomatically, he retains strong local support -- about 50 percent of the vote and the country's territory. He and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, are each backed by loyal armed forces, which were supposed to have integrated after the war. But instead, Gbagbo's army has maintained control over the south while Ouattara's rebels, the Forces Nouvelles, have guarded the north. In early January, they started fighting one another again in Abobo, a suburb of the capital Abidjan, and in recent days all along the border with Liberia.
The result has been growing chaos on the Liberian side of the border, where the flow of refugees increased by 90 percent in February. In just the last two weeks, the number of people who have entered Liberia from the Ivory Coast has jumped from 30,000 to 100,000. In the Ivory Coast, at least 200,000 have fled their homes in Abidjan, bringing the total number of displaced in the country to around 370,000. In the country's interior, the United Nations has very limited access to them. Meanwhile, U.N. agencies in the Liberian capital of Monrovia say they have contingency plans for housing as many as 250,000 refugees.
But civilians aren't the only ones crossing the border. The U.N.'s top envoy in Liberia, Ellen Margaret Loj, confirmed that armed Ivorian fighters from both sides of the emerging conflict have recently attempted to enter the country. "Some [were] trying apparently to use Liberia as a transit to re-enter into Cote d'Ivoire, others to come in and see if there were any defected fighters among the refugees," she told me on March 9.