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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Tense calm at Monrovia's flashpoints

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC, Monrovia

Boy stealing tins of food from Monrovia's port
Rebels control the port area - where there is food
Soon after daybreak on Wednesday, hundreds of people walked through central Monrovia to the frontline and tried to cross into rebel territory.

They said they were desperate for food and that the price of rice was soaring out of control.

Many of them have family members living on the other side of the frontline who they believed would be able to give them food and supplies.

But government soldiers said they could not allow it and after shots were fired in the air, the crowds dispersed, disappointed.

It's a mark of how inured to suffering these people are, that instead of erupting in riots over this decision, they instead stood around in small groups, sullen anger being their prime emotion.

Over in rebel territory, gunmen on the frontline appear relaxed.

They believe that despite the tension in the city, the next few days will stay generally calm.

They say they welcome the West African peacekeeping force.

But it's what comes next, on Monday that could be the flashpoint.

If Charles Taylor doesn't hand over power and leave Liberia, then the really serious fighting could resume then.

These are all adult considerations, the political manoeuvrings of various groups.

Psychologically disturbed

You have to wonder how much it all means to Liberia's child soldiers.

Many are no more than 10-years-old, with their fluorescently painted guns only emphasising their youth.

The tragic perversion of what could laughingly be described as their "childhood" is only too clear to see.

Government fighter with gun, near crowd
Food has run out behind government lines

Many of them play on the road, where the bodies of executed looters lie unburied.

I spotted a boy of about 10 riding a child's bicycle just behind the rebel checkpoint.

He was cycling round and round in a circle; an ordinary enough scene anywhere else in the world, except flung over his back was an AK-47 rifle.

In fact, both the boy and his bike were so small, the weapon was trailing on the ground behind him.

It's impossible to say how the legacy of what these child soldiers have seen will affect them in future years.

But it's clear just by watching them that many are psychologically disturbed.

Yet underneath it, they share a lot in common with the ordinary children of Monrovia.

I've spoken to several children, both fighters and civilians, and they all repeat the same thing.

All they want is to go back to school and have an education.

Monrovia (Image: Digitalglobe)

Through the everyday trauma of living in this place, they still somehow know that there is a better future that they can aspire to.

On Thursday, the Nigerian peacekeepers are due to move in from Monrovia's airfield and start patrolling along the government lines in the capital.

Most Monrovians are assuming that they'll receive a warm welcome, but they haven't yet managed to persuade the rebels to allow them near their frontline yet, so they can bring in more supplies.

Monrovia's two main river crossings, the Old Bridge and the Gabriel Tucker Bridge have been the most tense of all these frontlines.

Both are littered with empty ammunition cartridges.

President Charles Taylor
Future calm in Liberia is linked to Taylor's exit
And yet on Tuesday the Old Bridge was witness to an extraordinary spectacle as fighters from both sides walked across the bridge to the middle, meeting halfway, then hugging each other.

Maybe this is a good omen for when the National Assembly meets on Monday to formally transfer power from President Charles Taylor.

But although the bridges are fairly calm at the moment, there is still a tense undercurrent.

Child and adult rebel soldiers alike are high on marijuana and extremely excitable.

They'll allow members of the press to cross over, but all it would take is one stray gun shot across the bridge for fighting to break out again.

The BBC's Barnaby Phillips
"On the rebel frontline, nobody is too young to carry a gun"


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