BIG JOE TOWN, LIBERIA — THE young boys, materializing from the surrounding jungle, approach ``Checkpoint Charlie'' outside Big Joe Town with some hesitation. Standing on this rainy spot on the railroad tracks are big men with bigger guns.
A teenage rebel, followed by a dozen others like him in ragged clothes, stops short of the white flag. He raises his hand and utters a ``hello'' to the West African peacekeepers whom he and his ``men'' have been fighting for nine months.
This rendezvous in rebel territory, about 50 miles southwest of Monrovia, is aimed at negotiating the safe passage of a train carrying relief supplies to tens of thousands of malnourished civilians caught behind guerrilla lines. The meeting is a sign that peace may have finally come to Liberia, nearly four years after a rebel incursion ballooned into a tribal war.
On Christmas eve in 1989, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Forces of Liberia (NPFL) tried to topple the government of Samuel Doe. Since then, more than 150,000 people have died, an estimated 700,000 have fled the country, and Liberia has gained the reputation of having the world's highest per capita number of refugees.
The country's three warring factions signed an agreement in July to end the fighting that began in 1989. A cease-fire has held for a month and an executive council has been formed by Mr. Taylor's NPFL, the rebel United Liberation Movement for Democracy, and the Liberian Armed Forces to head a new transitional government.
But, as earlier broken accords prove, truces in Liberia are generally brittle affairs, threatened by regional rivalries, egos, and deep-seated mistrust.
``I do not consider the cease-fire as being delicate at this point in time,'' says Bismarck Kuyon, the chairman of Liberia's transitional government that is to organize elections next year. ``But I cannot say that it will remain the way it is for the next two or three months. Here you have an estimated number of about 100,000 young people having arms. When you have arms you want to fight.''
That is just one of the many problems Liberia has to overcome to achieve lasting peace. Others are beyond its control.
Nigeria, which makes up the bulk of a six-nation regional peacekeeping force dispatched to Liberia in August 1990 by the Economic Community of West African States, no longer has a military government committed to keeping troops in Liberia, or the money to keep them armed and fed. Nigeria's new interim leader, Ernest Shonekan, announced Tuesday that the government plans to withdraw its soldiers from the group within seven months.
Taylor has persistently accused the West African troops, primarily the Nigerians, of siding with his foes and of trying to take over Liberia, which was settled by freed American slaves in 1847. Outgoing Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida was friends with Doe, the Liberian president who was abducted from West African troops by a rebel group and killed in September 1990.
Foreign observers speculate that Taylor decided to give up fighting the 11,000-strong West African force when it appeared the military would remain in power in Nigeria after General Babangida annulled presidential elections held in June. Nigeria's withdrawal from the force could inflame any reservations Taylor may have to disarm. He has reneged on several past peace accords and has already boycotted the first meeting of Liberia's new interim government.
Another threat to peace stems from financial problems at the United Nations. Relief workers and Liberian officials worry a cash shortage will delay the disarmament process and prompt hungry rebels to return to war.
Up to 4,000 additional peacekeepers are to be sent from Egypt, Tanzania, and Zambia to begin the process, but they won't arrive for another month.
In the coming weeks, 30 United Nations representatives will be deployed along Liberia's borders to begin monitoring the peace process. Another 250 observers are to join them soon after.
In a symbolic gesture to commemorate the end of the war, Liberians last month reopened and reconsecrated the St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia. Up to 700 refugees were massacred there by Liberian government soldiers in 1990.
``It's showing that we're putting the pieces back together,'' said Pastor Joseph Ilison. But gray blood stains are still visible on the white tile floors despite repeated bleaching and sanding, serving as a constant reminder of the most brutal war in West Africa since Nigeria's civil war more than two decades ago.