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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Liberia starts to rebuild
Refugee camp
Thousands are too afraid to return to Lofa County
By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Zorzor

Residents returning to this much-fought-over town and surrounding villages have begun cleaning up the debris of war to make the area inhabitable once again.

Zorzor, situated on the border with Guinea, has been attacked seven times by Liberian rebels since 1999.

Two children in Konia
After months in the forests, some people are now going home
"To clean the town is not the problem, the problem is the lack of shelter for the thousands of people still residing in the bushes," said town chief Paul Howard.

He heads the clean-up exercise, which is done every Saturday. Gun-toting militiamen fighting alongside regular Liberian soldiers maintain a huge presence in the town since driving dissident forces away in April.

Encouragement

Liberian Defence officials on Saturday accompanied members of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia to Lofa County to see the effects of the fighting.

Youth leader Sumo Gayflor said fighting has stopped but many people are still too afraid to come to town.


"Your coming today has given us the courage to encourage them to return," he said.

Changing hands between government and rebel troops has reduced Zorzor to rubble. Buildings are levelled to the ground, vandalised or pock-marked with bullet-holes.

One lady selling oranges in the open said that when she returned from hiding, she could not recognise the spot where her home once existed and is now living in her fields.

No drugs

Zubah Johnson, a 75-year-old father of six, represents the elders on the committee to clean the town.

He told BBC News Online that food has never been a problem in Lofa County "but because of war we abandoned all our farms and ran for our lives. We can venture into the bushes and return with at least roots to eat, but medication is out. If any sickness grabs you, you just have to bear it."

Destroyed house
Zorzor has been attacked seven times in two years

Self-proclaimed "combat medic" Zayzay Miller is the only health practitioner in town but his presence means nothing in the absence of essential drugs.

"When I had limited supplies of drugs in April, I treated over 500 people, for malaria, dysentery and skin diseases," he said.

He said things are even worse in the villages.

"Because of the terrible experiences people had while fleeing the fighting, a lot of them still don't believe that Zorzor is free."

Gunbattle

One woman, Yamah Mullbah, selling roasted corn at what once was a leading gas station, accused the rebels of gunning down civilians when they struck in March.

Despite the peace in Zorzor, we could still hear the sounds of gunbattle as government troops fought to end "pockets of resistance" by rebels in the district of Kolahun, south of Zorzor.


We abandoned all our farms and ran for our lives. We can venture into the bushes and return with at least roots to eat, but medication is out

Zubah Johnson
To stop the spread of the fighting in Kolahun, Lofa County, which is the largest of Liberia's 15 counties, have been demarcated into military zones, each placed under the control of a division of soldiers.

"Right now the towns of Voinjama, Foya, Vahun and Salayea, are free of rebel presence," said Marine Division Commander General Peter Duo. "Apart from Kolahun where the action is, the whole of Lofa County is free."

'French-speaking' rebels

The general battlefront supervisor, Lieutenant General Coocoo Dennis, claimed it is easy to identify the dissidents. "They speak Mandingo (a local language) and French (the official language of Guinea). The Mandingos in Liberia speak Mandingo and English."

General Dennis took members of the UN Panel of Experts into "liberated" places under government control.

UN team inspects captured weapon
The UN is in Liberia to see whether sanctions are being respected

The team is in Liberia to assess the government's compliance with United Nations sanctions imposed in May for the country's alleged support for the RUF rebel movement in Sierra Leone.

Liberian troops, some very young and dressed in ordinary civilian clothing, man roadblocks which are set up in all highway towns and villages as a measure to stop rebel infiltration.

General Dennis said this is necessary "because we are in a guerrilla warfare situation where there is nothing such as safety zone."

No solution

Martin Ayafor, leading the UN team, expressed shock and disbelief on seeing most of the destruction in Lofa.

"War is not solution. You know when it starts, but you will never know when it ends and you don't know how much misery it brings," he said in the devastated highway town of Konia, some 45 kilometres (28 miles) south of Zorzor.

Liberian soldier
Liberian soldiers man road-blacks to prevent rebel infiltration

Around 15,000 of those displaced by the fighting are sheltered in makeshift camps in villages of nearby Bong County.

In one of the camps, camp leader Vincent Darkolon complained that corn meal provided by aid agencies has become their regular food "whereas the whole world knows that the people of Liberia are rice consumers."

He said that between 2 and 4 children die from diarrhoea each week.

The internal refugees are sheltered in mud-plastered huts, covered to the top with UNHCR plastic sheeting. Malnutrition and skin diseases are visible amongst children in the camps.

The military authorities in the region have assigned special troops to ensure that civilians are not harassed by soldiers.

The Chief of Konia, a retired military sergeant, Tarnue Dugbeh, said civilians have had to cope with the behaviour of some of the soldiers "because we don't expect all the soldiers to be good."

See also:

28 Sep 01 | Africa
Liberia reopens borders
17 Sep 01 | Africa
Liberia bans Bin Laden pictures
16 Aug 00 | Africa
Q&A: Charles Taylor on gunrunning
15 May 00 | Africa
Diamonds: A rebel's best friend
12 Feb 01 | Africa
Timeline: Liberia
07 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Liberia
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