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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 18:53 GMT
Keeping a lid on Liberian unrest
Refugees remain scared of the fighting
Mark Doyle

Military unrest in northern Liberia is having a disastrous impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people who have been made homeless.

The unrest involves claims and military counterclaims from the government and a shadowy rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

But its impact on ordinary people is severe.

Sawmill refugee
The 10,000 in Sawmill are the tip of the iceberg

Rebels accused by the Liberian Government of being backed by neighbouring Guinea claim to be active in northern Liberia, and the government has sent military reinforcements there to deal with them.

But many of the rebel claims are unverifiable and the situation is also confused by a variety of pro-Liberian government militias in the region, some of which are reported to have clashed among themselves.


Some 10,0000 refugees from the recent months of military unrest in north-western Liberia now live in makeshift camps around the village of Sawmill, about 100 km north of the capital, Monrovia.

"But these 10,000 people are only a small proportion of the internally displaced" said Marie Noel Rodrigues of aid agency Medicin sans Frontieres.

refugee in Sawmill
Troops are supposed to protect the refugees

"There are also those who have come to swell the population of Monrovia and other groups of displaced in the north-east."

The refugees around Sawmill are scared.

They told me that just a few hours before I arrived in their makeshift camp that they had heard shooting in the surrounding jungle.

Later in the day, I saw a senior government commander drive northwards into the forest and several truckloads of soldiers pulling out of the capital and heading in the same direction.

Military activity like this makes the refugees want to leave for safer areas further south, but at the southern entrance to the camp in Sawmill, government soldiers have mounted a checkpoint designed to stop them.

The last thing the authorities in Monrovia want is a snowballing number of panicked people heading for the capital.


But it would be very wrong to conclude from this military activity that there's some sort of rebel front-line just a few hours drive from Monrovia.

The conflict in Liberia is more complex and fragmented than that.

"We try to put labels on everybody," said one observer in Monrovia.

"This man is a rebel, this man is a government soldier and so on, but out there in the provinces it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the behavior of our soldiers and rebels.

The rebels - if they exist as a coherent force at all - are a mixture of dissidents opposed to President Charles Taylor and elements who would best be described as bandits.

Liberian soldier
Heavily arrmed troops are sometimes no better than the rebels
But if it's not clear whom is fighting whom, there is definitely serious military unrest in north-western Liberia.

The 10,000 refugees I saw around the village of Sawmil are just a small proportion of those made homeless by the war.

But if the rebels are an incoherent military force, some of the units nominally backing President Charles Taylor may not be much better.

In government-controlled villages north of Monrovia, I saw boy soldiers with automatic weapons, fighters in a bewildering array of military and police units and some men with guns but no uniform at all.

Liberia has certainly not returned to the terrible days of the 1990s when the whole country was engulfed by war. But some of the fallout from that all-out conflict is still here and is keenly felt by the suffering refugees.

See also:

11 Dec 01 | Africa
Thousands flee Liberia fighting
09 Oct 01 | Africa
Liberia starts to rebuild
28 Sep 01 | Africa
Liberia reopens borders
16 Aug 00 | Africa
Q&A: Charles Taylor on gunrunning
12 Feb 01 | Africa
Timeline: Liberia
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