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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January 2004, 13:19 GMT
UN's Liberia 'honeymoon' to end
By Mark Doyle
BBC, Zwedru, eastern Liberia

I was standing facing the altar in a small Baptist church in this isolated town surrounded by thick jungle canopy when I was surprised by the sound of a choir singing behind me.

Church choir
Liberians use their faith to survive the aftermath of war
A haunting, rhythmic version of the Lord's Prayer was struck up as young men and women dressed in red cassocks half walked, half-swayed down the aisle singing acapella.

Something about the scene brought a lump to my throat.

The singing was beautiful, and if I were a Christian I'm sure the words of faith would have meant a great deal to me.

But you didn't need to be a Christian to be moved by the sight of people clinging to ordinary, decent things like a church service despite all the brutal Liberian war has thrown at them.

It happens throughout Liberia every day, in mosques and in churches, in womens' groups and in boy scout troupes.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things with pride as their way of hanging on to decency and asserting that the war was an aberration.

Just down the road from the Zwedru Grace Baptist Church, a contingent of Ethiopian UN soldiers was clearing the bush around a long-abandoned building and erecting military tents.

"Thank God for the peacekeepers, may they deliver us from evil," the preacher said from the pulpit.

Status quo

The Ethiopians setting up a base in Zwedru are the latest significant deployment outside Monrovia of what will soon become, at 15,000 troops, the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world.

The UN is here in some force to try to stop the domino effect of spreading war in West Africa which for many years had Liberia at its epicentre.

The Liberian conflict first infected Sierra Leone, with cross border raids then all-out war, then Guinea, and finally Ivory Coast.

The military Chief of Staff of the UN operation, Brigadier-General Bob Fitzgerald from Ireland, told me he was reasonably pleased with the deployment in Liberia so far.

But like other senior officers in the UN force the brigadier general must know that the most difficult tasks still lay ahead.

The UN's honeymoon of post-war goodwill may soon be over.

This is because so far, the UN hasn't really challenged the status quo that existed when the peace agreement was signed: the government of Liberia and the two rebel movements still occupy the areas they held when the peace deal was signed in Accra.

Lack of clarity

It is certainly true that the shooting has stopped, and the people at churches and mosques across the country are grateful for that.

There are also far fewer weapons on the streets.

I didn't see a single one in Monrovia not belonging to a UN soldier.

Some rebels are willing to go back to school after disarming
But the weapons are still at large, some no doubt hidden in the thick jungle, and will remain at large until a massive disarmament campaign gets under way.

Disarmament is by far the most sensitive task the UN will undertake, and unless it is seen to be balanced "affecting all of the former warring parties equally" dangerous tensions could develop.

The UN got off to a bad start with its disarmament campaign on 7 December, 2003.

Because of an apparent lack of clarity from the UN about what exactly should happen - and a desire by UN bureaucrats to keep to an unrealistically tight timetable as mandated by the Security Council - thousands of armed militiamen felt encouraged to swarm towards a disarmament camp just outside Monrovia.

'Arms for cash'

When the militiamen didn't get what they wanted - cash payments in return for their weapons - they went on the rampage and several people were killed.

However, according to several senior UN military officers who requested anonymity, the UN then compounded its mistakes by agreeing, under pressure of the unrest, to pay $75 "up-front" to fighters who give in their guns, when the disarmament resumes.

The $75 would be a "down payment" on a total of $300 that demobilised fighters get after taking part in a re-integration and re-education programme that should last several months.

The problem with this, the officers I spoke to in confidence said, was that a second-hand AK47 automatic rifle "the favoured killing-tool in Liberia" costs much less than $75.

There is a real danger, they said, that the tactic of paying $75 "up-front" could actually attract arms into Liberia from the surrounding region, creating a profitable arms trade with potentially deadly spin-offs if guns get into the wrong hands.

Uncontrolled jungle

The UN says it is patrolling the borders to prevent this happening, but anyone who has seen Liberia's frontiers with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, as I have, will know that this is a completely unrealistic claim.

Most of the border is jungle that is, frankly, beyond the control of anyone.

UN Troops
The UN disarmament process in Liberia is a sensitive affair
However, having put this figure of $75 into the equation, there is no way the UN can withdraw it without risking the anger of thousands of young, impatient, armed men.

The United Nations mission in Liberia also surprised many veterans of other disarmament programmes by failing to involve front-line militia commanders in the information campaign about demobilisation until the very last minute.

A planned resumption of the disarmament on 20 January was wisely put off until the various commanders had gone round and spoken to their militiamen on the ground.

While in Zwedru I saw several things that illustrate why it's so important for the disarmament to go well.

The first was the local hospital, a place that barely still merits such a description.

Looted wheelchairs

A local health administrator and a handful of hardworking nurses have kept the place going but there is no running water, no electricity, no food and hardly any medicine there.

Everything has been looted by armed men, including the wheels off a pair of wheelchairs that sit in an abandoned, empty ward.

And then there were the fighters lounging on wooden benches in Zwedru marketplace, bragging about their exploits during the war.

These fighters joined the Model (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) rebels after they chased out fighters loyal to the former President Charles Taylor in Zwedru in March 2003.

Swaggering in front of their tiny girlfriends, these teenage boys called themselves war-names like "Viper" or "Bread and Butter" as they told me how they killed Charles Taylor's militiamen in retaliation for his men killing their relatives in earlier rounds of fighting.

These boys were full of bravado, but after telling their stories they all frankly, and without embarrassment, said that they wanted to go back to school.

If the disarmament is successful, perhaps they'll do just that.


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