Ivorians come home to rebuild their lives

Displaced Ivorians coming back to Toulepleu People who fled the conflict of recent times are gradually returning home

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The violence that followed the disputed presidential election of late 2010 forced thousands in Ivory Coast to flee the country. Now some of them are coming back, only to find their towns and villages in ruins.

The ghost towns are gradually filling up in Ivory Coast's "Wild West", but it is still quiet.

In this region, three quarters of the villages were empty just a few months back.

Nearly 200,000 Ivorians are still in Liberia, scared to come home.

We are a long way from Ivory Coast's Abidjan and a long way from Liberia's Monrovia.

This is the back-of-beyond for both countries, a zone in which nature reserves hide militia groups and where the tall rainforest trees make way for cocoa and natural rubber trees that put the taste in our chocolate and the rubber in our car tyres.

Secret places

It is in this distant and frequently violent region that fighting first began at the start of the year, where one town after another fell to the advancing forces, building to an unstoppable wave that destroyed former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo's attempts to cling on to power.

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In the village of Glacon-bloc, the chief was the first to return after the violence.

The villagers here did not cross the nearby border to Liberia but moved deep into the thick tropical forest - represented by vast empty spaces on the most detailed maps we had.

"We have secret places where no-one can find us," Jean-Louis Gbohi tells me.

They heard the gunfire. "We didn't see the fighters. If you went to see them, you would be killed," he says.

Out of the jungle

We're in a new phase - like the calm after a violent storm.

Much has been swept away. The militia groups that used to control this area appear to have vanished while there are few roadblocks on the principal routes.

Derelict house in Glacon-bloc village Most buildings in the area have been badly damaged

But the United Nations is building eight military bases in this region - a clear sign that they think this is where any trouble will come from.

One by one, the villagers we meet from ethnic groups assumed to have voted for former President Gbagbo are coming out of the jungle.

They have little left to return to.

Every house is damaged in some way, all the metal sheeting has vanished, thatched homes have been burned, food stores and every other possession looted.

The forest undergrowth here has already reclaimed the primary school.

It is the rainy season but many are sleeping under the stars. The lucky ones get plastic sheeting from the Ivorian Red Cross to replace their vanished roofs.

On the morning of our final day in the region, I wandered out to look for breakfast and came across a battered minibus, parked up outside the wooden street-shack in Toulepleu, where a man called Alpha could make you a sugary tea with omelette sandwiches while you listened to the BBC.

The roof of the bus was loaded high with plastic water-containers and bags of clothes. The travellers on this particular odyssey sat around enjoying the cool of the morning.

Years of exile

These voyagers, it turned out, were on no ordinary road trip.

In this remote corner of the world, we had stumbled on a group of Liberian refugees returning from camps in Ghana.

Map of ivory Coast

Some had spent close to two decades in exile. They were Liberians crossing the stormy Francophone seas of Ivory Coast, and now within touching-distance of home.

Home - what a concept.

The day before, I had been to the border post, which was little more than a few huts on a mud track in the forest.

Six hundred Ivorian refugees had crossed over that morning.

For many of them, Liberia was a hellish place where the food made them sick. As one woman said to me, "all the children do is die" - after that, they would be placed in cloth bags and buried without the usual ceremony.

But these Liberians saw their country with quite different eyes.

Spirits were high at the end of a long journey, there was much banter, and even a certain optimism that this stranger who had just strolled up to them out of the blue in this quiet, battered town might just buy them all breakfast.

Promised land

Liberia for them was a country of hope - a place to rebuild, rediscover family and the ancestral earth.

It was a place of goat soup, rice bread and sweet potato pone (another kind of bread).

It was a beautiful place, a place that had filled their dreams during those long years in exile, constantly reminded by the population around them that they did not belong.

They had spent the last few days inside this tin can on wheels, at one point sweating it out for four hours at a roadblock manned by Ivorian soldiers, who not so long ago had been rebels. The soldiers had demanded a bribe of $200 (£126).

The Liberians had bumped and scraped across one of Africa's freshest war zones, through the Ivorian "Wild West", and they were now just 30 minutes from the border.

In the hills on the other side of the Nipoue river, lay their promised land, their Ithaca.

"Home is home. There is peace back home so we have to go back home," one woman, Grace, told me in an accent that hinted at the American South.

She had been away for 17 years.

"We have been out for so long. I think now we understand the evilness of war and we just want peace."

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