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Displaced persons still need help in West Africa, UMCOR says

 


Displaced persons still need help in West Africa, UMCOR says

 

June 8, 2004                            

 

By Linda Bloom*

 

NEW YORK (UMNS) – In West Africa, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is working both with displaced persons and with ex-combatants who need to be reintegrated into society.

The agency has been able to translate its experience in Sierra Leone with reconciliation and the demobilization of soldiers to the situation in Liberia, according to John Distefano, head of mission for UMCOR’s nongovernmental organization there. Sierra Leone experienced a brutal civil war during the 1990s.

“They (the two countries) have a lot of similarities culturally,” he added. “But they have dissimilar histories.”

Distefano has worked in Sierra Leone since October 2001 and added Liberia to his portfolio last November. In both countries, he said, the United Methodist Church has a “tremendous” institutional presence that “is of such importance it can’t be overlooked.”

With their social focus on education and health, the Sierra Leone and Liberian churches have much to contribute to the rebuilding of West Africa. In Sierra Leone, United Methodists are the second largest educating body after the government. “In both countries, because of the war, they are in a position to take a leading role in terms of reconciliation, peace building and trauma counseling,” Distefano said during an interview in late May.

Another local partner is the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone, a separate denomination also involved in community development projects focusing on health and education.

UMCOR’s work in eastern Sierra Leone has included providing seed, tools and agricultural assistance to 4,000 farming families and giving shelter materials to about 1,000 returning families whose homes were destroyed during the war.

In Liberia, “after several false starts,” the process of the disarmament, demobilization and integration of ex-combatants has finally begun, according to Distefano. UMCOR is assisting United Methodists in Liberia with this work so the church can provide skills training and counseling to ex-combatants. Liberia’s civil war began in 1989. Although rebel leader Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997, tensions continued, eventually leading to Taylor’s ouster in 2003.

UMCOR and the Lutheran World Federation, partners through Action by Churches Together, have taken the lead in the reintegration process. By coincidence, Distefano said, an old friend is the head of the Lutheran federation’s office in Liberia and the two agencies also have worked together at camps for internally displaced persons and on other projects.

Distefano is concerned that the recent emphasis on Liberia has shifted international attention away from Sierra Leone. He said he is “not optimistic” about getting enough funding to address problem areas, like the Koinadugu region in the north, which has historically been marginalized and remains in need of emergency relief. UMCOR is hoping to partner with the European Community to address water and sanitation issues in that region.

Because unrest can brew again in such marginalized areas, the region “needs to be addressed, it cannot be ignored,” he said.

Distefano stressed that West Africa – including Guinea and the Ivory Coast, along with Sierra Leone and Liberia – also must be considered in a regional context when it comes to reconstruction and development. “Every one of these countries impact on the others,” he explained.

 

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

 

·(646)369-3759·New York· E-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org ·

 

 

 

 

 

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