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'Clock is ticking' for refugees fleeing Ivory Coast

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • Oxfam says more than 100,000 people have crossed the border from Ivory Coast to Liberia
  • Families displaced by fighting are walking for four days to reach the Liberian border
  • Refugees are sharing houses in border villages with more than 30 people, says Oxfam
  • The rainy season will make it hard to deliver aid to these remote jungle villages

(CNN) -- Aid organizations are warning of an impending humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Liberia after fleeing violence in Ivory Coast.

International aid agency Oxfam says more than 100,000 people have crossed the border from Ivory Coast to Liberia and are living in dire conditions in jungle villages.

The agency says there are many stories of wives being separated from husbands, children arriving in Liberia having lost their parents, and some not surviving the journey across rivers and through forests.

The refugees have been displaced by the fighting that has swept across Ivory Coast. The International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday that 800 people had been shot dead in the western cocoa-producing town of Duekoue. A U.N. official put the death toll at 330 on Friday.

The violence erupted after a disputed November election led both incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara to claim the presidency. The international community recognized Ouattara as the legitimate winner but Gbagbo refused to cede power and violence has engulfed the nation.

Background on what's causing the conflict in Ivory Coast.

As the rainy season approaches and fighting escalates in the country Oxfam is warning that time is running out to get help for fleeing refugees living in these remote villages.

When the rains come, we will not be able to reach them with aid because the whole area will become inaccessible.
--Caroline Gluck, Oxfam, Liberia
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"When the rains come, we will not be able to reach them with aid because the whole area will become inaccessible," explained Caroline Gluck, who is working for Oxfam in Liberia. "The clock is ticking to get people to safe and reachable areas."

She added that the influx of refugees is doubling the populations of some of the border villages and is placing an enormous strain on locals, who have little food and facilities themselves.

Gluck has interviewed some of those escaping Ivory Coast, among them Gustave Glawoulou, whose home town Blolequin came under attack from rebel forces. Gluck said he fled in the middle of the night with his five children when the gunfire started.

Glawoulou told Gluck he walked for four days with his family to reach the Liberian border. All they had to eat were things they found in the forest. Now, in a border village called Ponah, he says conditions are very tough.

"There are 35 of us living in one house; if it doesn't rain we can go outside but when it rains we stay inside crouched on a mat sitting upright -- there is no room to lie down," he told Gluck.

"We would like to leave this place because there are too many of us and it's getting worse by the day," Glawoulou told her. "After two or three months it could get very hard as people will start to get sicker because of the poor food and shelter."

CNN could not independently verify this account.

Gluck explained that many of the refugees have gone to the border villages because they are close to their homes and because they think they can find work there and lead relatively normal lives.

She says many are reluctant to go into camps where they feel there will be no economic opportunities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is also working with Ivorian refugees in Liberia. It too warns that the growing number of refugees is putting a heavy burden on Liberian host communities and says it has registered more than 50 refugee children who have been separated from their parents.

Plan international, a children's organization working in Liberia, reports that some young people have been left traumatized by their experiences.

"All along the Liberia border in Nimba County, I met refugee children who couldn't smile and couldn't play. They were too shocked by all the violence they had seen," reported Berenger Berehoudougou, a Plan worker who has just returned from the Liberia and Ivory Coast border.

Plan also says that it's mostly women and children crossing the border from Ivory Coast. "I saw only a few men. I don't know what happened to the men and boys," Berehoudougou said.

"Some young people told me their brothers and fathers were fighting for one of the sides in the conflict in Ivory Coast. But no one seems sure of what is happening back in their home country," he added.

Gluck said another of the refugees she had spoken with was 15-year-old Stephane Ranhou, who had arrived in the small border village of Janzon, in south-eastern Liberia, with his younger sister Vanessa. Gluck said they had become separated from their parents and seven siblings as they escaped the fighting in Doku, and were now being fed by local families.

"The villagers have their own problems but they have been very generous opening their homes and giving shelter to refugees -- but there is a severe lack of food, shelter and medical care." Gluck said.