Ivorian children find temporary homes in Liberia refugee camp It was when armed men appeared in town that 13-year-old Israel Gbehe knew it was time to run. The town of Toulepleu in Guiglo county, Ivory Coast, was under attack. Israel didn't know if the fighters were supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, the country's deposed president, or Alassane Ouattara, his successor. What he did know was that he needed to find his five-year-old sister, Pacifique, and join the crowd of people fleeing the town and heading to the Liberian border.
Among those fleeing post-election violence in Ivory Coast are a large number of children, many without their parents. Many are being cared for in Bahn camp across the border in Liberia
The next day Israel and Pacifique were at a UN refugee transit point in the north-east of Liberia and eventually transferred to Bahn refugee camp in Nimba county.
That was in March. By the end of May, Israel had still not heard from his parents or knew their whereabouts.
Israel and Pacifique are among more than 2,000 children now at Bahn camp, situated 52km from the Ivory Coast border. The camp was built in January in an attempt to ease the pressure on the border towns that were filling up with Ivorians fleeing post-election violence. Bahn is built to accommodate 15,000 people, although by May only around 5,000 had arrived. The majority of people have chosen instead to stay a little closer to home, and in many cases have been offered shelter in the homes of Liberians living in villages dotted along the border (Liberian families are returning the favour for the support they received from Ivorians when they were forced to escape civil war)
According to figures published by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, in May, more than 175,800 Ivorian refugees had crossed the border into Liberia since last November's disputed election, most settling in Nimba county. Thousands more have reportedly fled to Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana.
Since arriving at Bahn – a vast space of cleared bush filled with white UN-stamped tarpaulin tents – Israel and Pacifique have been placed with a foster family, while the International Committee of the Red Cross helps trace their parents. Pacifique is now attending the camp's primary school and, in the absence of any formal secondary education, Israel spends time in what's known as a "child-friendly space" (CFS), a youth club of sorts that offers young people the chance to meet, play games, share experiences, receive counselling and gain skills they can hopefully use when they return home.
Both the school and the CFS have been set up by the NGO Save the Children, which has responsibility for education and child protection in the camp.
Unaccompanied or separated children, like Israel and Pacifique, present a particular challenge when they arrive at Bahn. Apart from the distress of having to flee their homes without close family, some youngsters, particularly girls, may have been sexually assaulted on their way. Ensuring their protection while they are in the camp is vital, says Fiona Bukirwa, Save the Children's child protection manager at Bahn. "When they arrive we work out who has the most urgent needs, who needs to be put in foster care," she says. "We try to put them with a relative of sorts. We monitor them on a regular basis."
Bukirwa says that since January around 450 children have arrived at the camp either alone or with relatives who are not their usual care giver. She said about 50 girls said they had been sexually assaulted. "We have a lot of cases of children being gang raped or raped along the way. It's a big problem we are having to deal with."
Young people who have been assaulted are referred to Médecins Sans Frontières, which takes care of the camp's medical needs, and then Bukirwa and her team try to provide follow-up care and counselling, which includes sessions for teenage girls about how to avoid sexual abuse and exploitation while they are in the camp.
Save the Children also recruits foster parents to offer an extra layer of protection. Adele Bekabo Bouh, 30, is one such parent. She arrived at the camp with her husband and 12-year-old daughter in February, after fleeing Ivory Coast when a neighbouring village was attacked.
Bouh was approached by Save the Children staff about becoming a foster parent soon after she arrived, and after attending a workshop and receiving training, she agreed. The family receives no money to foster, but may be given an extra bar of soap or a blanket. "When I saw these children I felt so sorry for them, and felt they could be my children," she says, sitting outside her tent, with Pacifique sitting on her lap.
Bouh's tent is neat and orderly, much like the rest of the camp. Inside, a sheet divides the tent into two and mattresses are laid on the floor with a few possessions neatly piled on top. Plastic cups, bowls, utensils and buckets are stacked on a wooden stand.
The tent feels unbearably hot inside, and there is some concern about how they will hold out when the rains come.
Israel is inside sweeping. He says Pacifique is finding it very hard being away from her parents. She is often sad and upset. He gets sad too. He wants to see his parents and go home. "I want to go back to school," he says.