Sunday September 7, 2003

like the reporter says, can you imagine?  if not, why not?

God, help.


Liberia’s sad normality

By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

It started as a trickle. A few hundred displaced people, their belongings on their heads, trekking south towards the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Sadly, a few hundred desperate souls doesn’t count as news from Liberia. Sadly, it’s normal for displaced people to be on the road, escaping one armed band or another.

Displaced people flee Totota in central Liberia

Rumours of fighting sparked an exodus

But then the trickle became a flood.

The entire road was thick with people – perhaps 50,000 of them – heading away from the town of Totota, in central Liberia.

Entire families were there, as were infirm old women being transported in wheelbarrows, and a blind man who bumped into my stationary car.

A child took the blind man by the hand and steered him in the right direction.

Soon the United Nations aid convoy I was following couldn’t continue because of this sea of humanity running from danger.

It’s hard to find the words to express the extent of the suffering in Liberia

The people on the road said they had heard a rebel attack near the refugee camp they were living in was likely because of earlier episodes in the war.

But exactly what happened to make them run is not clear.

Sadly, again, this is normal in Liberia.

The war has destroyed society to such an extent, criminalising the gunmen who run overlapping armed factions, that it’s difficult to tell who is a government soldier and who is a rebel.

It’s hard to find the words to express the extent of the suffering in Liberia.

I tried by imagining how I would feel walking down that road, dragging my own young children away from some squalid refugee camp and heading for another.

But, of course, I couldn’t imagine that.

If, like me, you come from a stable rich country, just try it – it’s hard.

But it’s nevertheless an outrageous failure of our imaginations, because there’s no good reason why it is normal for people to be reduced to this.

Scared nation

The kind of men responsible – the kind who show their courage by pointing guns at old women – were there at military checkpoints on the road, extorting from the refugees the little that they had.

It’s not difficult to scare Liberians, they know from experience that these men mean it when they threaten to kill them.

I saw one militia man threatening people with a large bullet – the type put in anti-aircraft guns.

He didn’t have the gun, but he did have the big bullet.

He was waving it menacingly with one hand, holding a big knife in the other. He looked ridiculous, but he looked scary.

It’s all normal.

Woman peace marchers

Civilians are desperate for the end of the fighting

But here’s something that’s not… Back in the capital Monrovia a large and confident American smoking a fat cigar is addressing a press conference.

“I’m seeking 15,000 troops”, in essence, “and I’m going to get them, then I’m going to demobilise 50,000 Liberian fighters, rebuild the ragged government army, and restore democracy here”.

This is not normal and Liberians are watching this man, holding their breath, and wondering if it can all be true.

The man was Jacques Klein, the United Nations special representative here.

He’s assembling what could easily become the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world.

And he says, he intends, if necessary, to outgun the gunmen.

Next week he’ll be in New York, lobbying the UN Security Council and seeking a tough chapter seven peace enforcement mandate.

He’ll probably get his mandate, and may well get his troops, if only because the Americans want something done about Liberia.

Enormous challenges

The country was first created in the 19th century by freed African slaves – many of them from the American south.

And when the war between government and rebels here reached a new crescendo this year, everyone was clamouring for the US, with its historic ties to Liberia, to intervene.

A displaced malnourished child is treated in a Liberian camp for displaced people

Without food, Liberians cannot enjoy peace

The Americans – under pressure in Iraq and very aware that they have no strategic interests in Liberia – would not put significant numbers of soldiers on the ground.

But they have provided money to help West African troops come here, and they now form the vanguard of what will become Mr Klein’s UN operation.

The task ahead is enormous.

The UN will be asked to rebuild everything, and already they’re up against the problem of dealing with the collapsed, corrupt state.

One of the aid agencies, for example, is trying to get the old power generating plant going again.

At present, the normal thing here is for there to be almost no mains electric power in the capital city.

The aid agency’s trying to import spare parts for the generators, but as is also normal, corrupt government officials (according to Jacques Klein) are blocking the spare parts, by charging extortionate fees.

The boundaries of what is normal are being pushed in Liberia, but some things remain the same.


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