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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 August, 2003, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Peacekeepers offer Liberians slim hope

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC correspondent in Monrovia

Liberians greet Nigerian troops
Nigerian troops received a euphoric welcome

The people were walking with determined strides through central Monrovia, past the derelict buildings of Broad Street and down towards the bridge that links the city with the port.

There were hundreds of people at least, but probably thousands. Old men and women, teenagers, all going the same way, their feet crunching over broken glass and bullets.

This was strange. The bridge is a dangerous area, the domain of the gunmen - or should that be gun boys - the excited teenagers on the frontline fuelled by marijuana, alcohol and the adrenaline of fear.

The bridge is not a place that you go unless you have to, so we stopped and asked the people where they were going.

"To the other side," they said. "We have to cross over, there's no food on this side, we've run out of rice."

But crossing the bridge meant crossing the frontline and that meant taking on the boys with guns, who had orders to let no-one through.

The crowd milled around, the boys would not move. They fired their guns in the air, the people pulled back, defeated for now.

Monrovians are desperate - but they are not yet suicidal.

Euphoria

The next day, again, there were big crowds out on Monrovia's streets, only this time they were celebrating, as the first Nigerian peacekeepers drove into the city.

Crowded onto balconies, perched in trees, standing on rooftops or by the side of the road, they cheered and cheered, chanting: "No more war. We want peace."

This was euphoria - people who have been bombed and shot at and who are running out of food, but who can finally see that the rest of the world does care about their plight.

PEACEKEEPING IN LIBERIA
Nigerian forces arriving in Liberia

Frankly, the Nigerians are poorly equipped, and few in number but they are very welcome. Liberians want this nightmare to end and the Nigerians are all that they have.

There are only faint suggestions in Monrovia of the city that once was amidst the present anarchy.

You might suddenly come across a faded poster warning you to stop smoking: it could damage your health. Or a man diligently pruning his hedge as teenage militiamen in women's wigs drive past in a looted pick-up truck.

Or the Lebanese trader who is sweeping the pavement outside the small shop he hopes to re-open one day.

He ignores the stench from the rotting corpses just up the road; these are the bodies of looters, say the rebels, and obviously they were executed - their hands are tied behind their backs.

It's hard to know how such a society can ever rebuild itself.

On the government side of the city I went to a counselling centre for women who have been raped by militiamen.

Years of bloodshed

The volunteers working there say there are hundreds of women in this situation and in the past few weeks the number has soared.

We met a teenage girl whose leg was shot off because she tried to resist when the soldiers came for her, and a mother in her late 30s, who was gang raped by armed boys half her age.

There has now been war in Liberia for 13 years, more or less continuously.

Thirteen years without proper schools or hospitals, and 13 years in which the ordinary, decent people of this country have run back and forth trying to escape the marauding warlords.

CHARLES TAYLOR
Liberian President Charles Taylor

Behind rebel lines, I went to a camp for displaced people - 5,000 of them living in what used to be a school.

By current Monrovian standards this camp is not especially crowded, it even has a working water pump.

But one man I spoke to there made an impression.

Mom Johnson, 48, and once upon a time a farmer - now on the run with his wife and four children (including a daughter, Meme, born in a ditch on the roadside two months ago).

"Everyone here is homesick, and everyone here used to work for themselves - now all we can do is pray for handouts - it's too frustrating," he said.

So much now depends on President Charles Taylor - he says he will step down and he says he will leave.

But the rebels on the other side of this city don't trust him one inch, and even those inclined to give President Taylor the benefit of the doubt, have to ask themselves why he tried to bring new weapons into Monrovia - just days before he was due to depart.

If President Taylor thinks he can sit tight a little longer, it's hard to see how the current ceasefire will hold.

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