- Quecuta Jaura used to feel well off. He was the kind of man that relatives in this impoverished farming community would look to for help in an emergency, some even entrusted their kids to his care knowing he had the means to give them a better start in life, an education.
But when Guinea Bissau troops launched a six-week offensive in mid-March to oust rebels from villages along the country’s northern border with Senegal, Jaura, like many others, lost everything.
“This is what’s left of my house,” said Jaura, sweeping his arm to take in the patch of rubble that used to be his mud-brick home in the trading and farming town of Sao Domingos, 126 km north of the capital Bissau. “It was hit by a bazooka. We lost everything. All we have left is ourselves, our bodies.”
Now 49-year-old Jaura, his wife, and their five children plus the seven entrusted to his care by friends and family, squeeze into the single room of a young bachelor who left Sao Domingos to find work over the border in more affluent Senegal.
At night the family jam together on the floor like sardines in a can - the parents and smallest share a foam mattress, the younger ones on blankets and mats under the football posters of the vacant occupant. The older boys sleep outside on the tiny veranda.
On 15 March, Guinea Bissau’s recently re-installed President Joao Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira - as head of the armed forces - launched an offensive against Senegal’s separatist rebel group, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), who according to the minister of defence had dug into positions in Guinea Bissau territory.
“We have secured the border. And, we have got rid of the rebels who were well installed in our territory,” Prime Minister Aristides Gomes told IRIN last week as the last soldiers were being pulled back into barracks.
For two decades now, the MFDC have been fighting to no avail to win secession of Casamance, a narrow but lush strip of Senegal wedged between The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. Although Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade in 2004 signed a peace deal with leaders of the MFDC, some hard-line elements are refusing to turn in their guns.
One rebel faction, led by Salif Sadio, took the brunt of the assault, which, according to many people in Guinea Bissau, was in reprisal for the support lent by the group to coup leader General Ansumane Mane, who ousted Vieira in 1999 after 11 months of civil war.
When Vieira’s latest offensive reached Sao Domingos on 17 March, Jaura sheltered from the battle at the local radio station where he is a volunteer. His wife and children, along with around 10,000 other people in the area, fled entirely. When Jaura dared to return home, he found his house destroyed and their belongings, including food stores and seeds, looted.
“We are facing serious problems,” said Fatumata, Jaura’s wife. “We have nothing to eat - they stole everything from us. Now my youngest son is sick and I can’t take him to hospital as we have no money.”
Residents of Sao Domingos say about a dozen homes were destroyed. But it was the villages to the east of the town that saw the worst of the fighting with about 75 village homes destroyed and many more looted according to research by Oxfam-Netherlands.
In total some 450 families are in need of urgent assistance of basics such as seeds and tools so they can plant their fields and feed themselves for the coming year, according to Michel van der Drift, a consultant working with Oxfam-Netherlands. The International Committee of the Red Cross put the total number of people in need of help at 4,500.
But time is running out. Already the first seasonal rains are falling over Guinea Bissau and it’s already too late to plant one of the regional staples, ‘arroz pam pam’ or dry rice. Farmers still have four weeks to plant other essential crops such as groundnuts, beans and sorghum - as long as aid workers can finance and deliver the seeds and tools in time.
Most families in Guinea Bissau live a precarious existence with an estimated 80 percent of the population living on less than US $2 a day according to a 2004 National Millennium Development Goal Report. Local produce is grown through low-technology subsistence agriculture. For many, the sale of raw cashew nuts for as little as 30 cents a kilo is their sole source of cash.
With this in mind, the UN launched on 16 May an emergency flash appeal for US $3.64 m to assist some 20,000 people who fled, hosted and assisted others, or lost homes or survival essentials as a result of the fighting.
The government of Guinea Bissau initially opposed the launch of an appeal, maintaining that the fighting had had little humanitarian consequences.
Though most of those who fled have returned to their hometowns and villages, some especially in the far north are unable to work their fields and gather their red-ripe cashew nut harvest for fear of landmines.
According to the UN flash appeal document, landmines and improvised explosive devises laid by rebel forces have hindered access throughout the conflict area. However, local farmers say the problem is concentrated in farmland along the border and the Guinea Bissau village of Barraca Mandioca - which lies north east of Sao Domingos - where MFDC rebels had a large base.
Sao Domingos and the surrounding villages can only be reached from Bissau by crossing the Cacheu River by ferry. But the rusted boat is old and only one of its engines work, and that regularly floods. Travellers in vehicles can spend hours, even days waiting to cross the river.
ICRC offices and staff based 70 km away from Sao Domingos and over the border in the Senegalese town of Ziguinchor have provided much of the emergency relief to date, though food districbutions have also been made by the UN’s World Food Programme.
But the hand outs are little consolation for Jaura and his family of 14 who haven’t managed to get their name on the distribution list despite making repeated visits to nearby ICRC offices.
“These days I am relying on gifts from my family and friends,” said Jaura, who is more used to helping others than being helped himself. “Even all these clothes I am wearing are a gift from friends.”
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