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Refugee Ship Captain: ‘I Have Gone Through Hell’

May 15, 1996

TAKORADI, Ghana (AP) _ He spent 10 days roaming the West African coast, trying to find a port for his rusty freighter and refuge for more than 1,500 Liberians he packed on board against his better judgment.

The Nigerian captain said it wasn’t his fault if the trip was miserable, because African peacekeepers pressured him to help carry the flood of people desperate to get out of the Liberian capital Monrovia.

``I have gone through hell,″ said Roland Pudie. ``The most uncomfortable and worst experience of the decade.″

That experience aboard what one U.N. official dubbed the ``voyage of the damned″ came to an end Tuesday, when Ghana finally bowed to international pressure to let the refugees onto its shores.

On Wednesday, thousands more Liberians were jamming the port of Monrovia, though most appeared to be demanding food at the seaside warehouses of the U.N. World Food Program. Food prices have skyrocketed, with staples such as rice and oil now three times more expensive than 10 days ago.

Peter Sebok, the owner of a shipping company at the port, said sea captains were not taking any more refugees from Liberia, torn by 6 1/2 years of civil war that has killed about 150,000 people.

Renewed fighting between rival factions has destroyed the capital over the past five weeks, including fierce clashes Tuesday with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars around the diplomatic district.

Wednesday was quieter in Monrovia, with sporadic gunfire and isolated street battles with combatants using small arms in and around the Mamba Point district, which includes the U.S. Embassy.

In Takoradi, a port in western Ghana, the 1,849 refugees that packed the Bulk Challenge for its 10-day sojourn made ready for new lives.

An earlier report of 3,000 to 4,000 refugees crammed on the cargo ship proved to be untrue. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said those on board included 1,559 Liberians, 133 Ghanaians, 131 Nigerians and 26 Nigerian peacekeepers.

The World Food Program said it had moved some 10 tons of food from Ghana’s capital Accra to Takoradi, enough to feed the refugees for four months.

On arrival, the refugees told harrowing tales of crewmen who sold donated aid food packets at inflated prices to near-starving people trapped on board. Dysentery and pneumonia hit many of the refugees; at least two of them died.

But both Pudie and Tom Ipaye, the agent on board who chartered the ship, said Tuesday night that the reports were exaggerated.

Ipaye said the ship was originally destined to pick up cargo from Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone.

``I had no business to convey human beings ... as you can see, it is a cargo ship,″ said Ipaye. He said he was pressured by the peacekeeping troops from West Africa to carry refugees.

``Before I could utter a word, they started putting people like Tom Woewiyu and their family on board,″ said Ipaye. Woewiyu is the former right-hand man to militia leader Charles Taylor and chief of his own rebel faction.

``It was at this juncture that I instructed my men to sell tickets to the people who had started milling onto the boat,″ Ipaye said.

As the freighter inched out of the port of Monrovia on May 5, hundreds of desperate refugees surged toward the ship, many of them climbing up the sides.

``This was the beginning of the troubles,″ said Ipaye.

Both Ivory Coast and Ghana turned the ship away three times, even though it had taken on water, declaring they could not support any more Liberian refugees their soil.

More than 350,000 Liberians have fled to neighboring Ivory Coast and 15,000 to Ghana to escape the war.

All appeared rosier Wednesday for at least one refugee.

A Liberian at the Essipong refugee camp, a 50-year-old professor who would only give his name as Michael, said he never wants to go home.

``I am tired, but fortunately I have my family with me here, so all I have to do is put my life together and gradually forget about Liberia,″ he said. ``I tell you, that country is not going to know peace in the next decade.″

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