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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 October 2005, 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK
Monrovia voters hope for new dawn
By Joseph Winter
BBC News website, Monrovia

Hundreds of thousands of Liberians publicly demonstrated their desire to turn the page on their country's dark days of civil war by flocking to the polls.

Monrovia has been devastated by 15 years of war

Many were so desperate to play their part in ending the transition period and moving on to a new era - they hope - of peace and prosperity that they arrived at the polling stations in the middle of the night and then continued to stand in line under the scorching sun for five hours or more.

Tempers occasionally started to fray due to the slow pace of the voting process combined with the heat.

Two voters fainted from the heat in the capital, Monrovia, and were taken to hospital.

As soon as a few extra UN peacekeepers were deployed to the potential trouble-spots, the lines started to move forward.

"I would never have believed this could be possible," Abraham Holmes, 27, told the BBC News website.

He was waiting to vote in a school next to an open sewer in a market on Bushrod Island just across a bridge from the city centre.

'Ghost town'

Two years ago, this is where government fighters made their last stand, with days of heavy fighting as they desperately tried to stop Monrovia from falling into rebel hands.

One of the polling stations in the Red Light community
It took three hours to form an orderly queue at one polling station

"This was a ghost town, with bullets and shells flying overhead," Mr Holmes said.

As he was speaking the entrance to the school was packed with several hundred people jostling and shoving in their desperation.

And yet Monrovia - away from the polling stations - once more resembled a ghost town.

A public holiday had been declared and with much of the population stuck in queues, the markets and streets were strangely deserted.

The National Elections Commission was determined to ensure that everything went by the book and even stopped Liberia's interim leader Gyude Bryant from voting.

He had taken a helicopter from Monrovia to his home town of Harper in the south-east, where he had registered to vote but he had forgotten his electoral card and was turned away.

'Education, education, education'

As well as signalling the massive enthusiasm of Liberians for their new era, the queues were also a sign of some of their problems.

LIBERIA ELECTIONS
22 presidential candidates
94 seats in two-tier parliament
1.3m registered to vote

"Education, education, education," is what most people say when asked what the new government's priority should be.

"I have four children but I cannot afford to send them to school," said Kumba Tamba.

Most of the polling stations were in schools, so if there were more educational establishments, the voters could have been spread more thinly around more polling stations, easing the queues.

And the low literacy rate meant the presiding officers and election officials had to explain the process to the voters, even though a vigorous voter education campaign has been under way for several months.

Complicated process

In one polling station in the Red Light community in the Paynesville suburb of Monrovia, it took three hours just to organise the huge numbers of voters into orderly queues.

Voting in Monrovia
Each voter was given three papers - the red, the blue and the green

But casting the ballot was a complicated process.

Each voter was given three papers - the red presidential one which was a foot-long to include all 22 candidates, as well as a blue one for the election to the senate and a green one for the house of representatives. People had to choose two candidates in the senatorial race.

I would not be surprised to find a large number of spoilt ballot papers.

By the time they had the process explained and then carried it out, it took people some seven minutes from entering the polling station, to leaving it again.

Maybe in future elections here, an absence of long queues will be a sign that more schools have been built, literacy rates have risen and people have become more used to the electoral process.

Internally displaced

The queues in Monrovia were particularly acute because so many people have flocked to the city to escape the past 15 years of war and bloodshed as a succession of different armed factions has marched across the country seeking power.

The internally displaced
The internally displaced had been told they would be voting at home

The hundreds of thousands of Liberians officially registered as internally displaced had been promised that they would be back home by election day.

But the Mount Barclay camp on the outskirts of Monrovia still has so many residents that it had its own polling station.

"I am happy to vote but I am desperate to go back home," said Tamba Taweh, 60, from Lofah County on the border with Guinea and Sierra Leone.

"My house was burnt down and I have nothing left," she said, carrying her granddaughter strapped to her back with a piece of cloth.

Behind her, the hillside was covered in small huts made from wood and mud, topped up with blue plastic sheets emblazoned with the UN logo.

Because these refugees in their own country were promised they would be voting at home, their voter cards were stamped with their home region.

This meant they could only vote in the presidential election to stop them affecting the race to represent Greater Monrovia in the new parliament.

Back to normal

Although the National Elections Commission announced that voting could be extended until midnight because of the massive turnout, by the end of the day, the queues were starting to disappear.

And the counting process began, with officials using car batteries to power fluorescent lights in this capital city without an electricity supply.

It is a remarkable testament to Liberia's desire for peace - and the presence of the UN peacekeepers - that no incidents of violence have been reported.

And Monrovia began to rediscover its normal rhythm.

Market stalls opened after their owners returned from voting and bars started to fill up as people tried to relax after the stress of election morning and discuss the country's next step.

After the euphoria of going to the polls, the anxious wait for the results has begun.


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