Shifting Eye of Africa's Storm

Fragile democracy in Sierra Leone at risk as Liberians flee their civil war

ALONG a 2-1/2 mile stretch of West Africa's finest beaches, American soldiers, United Nations officials, and merchants cool off as waves gently roll up. Locals sell drinks and souvenirs. Overhead the occasional commercial helicopter flies in and deposits the last few evacuees from the chaos next door in Liberia.

Three American soldiers stroll down the beach in Bermuda shorts. "We're not even sure what country we're in," says one. "And right now we don't really care." They do know, however, that somewhere behind the lush mountain backdrop, rebels are fighting another vicious civil war in Africa, and that shore leave here means just that - stay by the shore.

A group of disheveled-looking United Nations staff members chat at their beachside hotel, some still in the clothes they wore when they fled Liberia. None could guess where they will be in a week.

One said that what disheartened her most was the failure of the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, to prevent the chaos.

It "puts a question mark over the future of regional peacekeeping," she says. Regional solutions to conflict were what the UN has promoted because its shrinking budget has made it unable to act alone.

Still, most of the UN personnel say they are hopeful that they will get back to Liberia. "We were really doing something for people," says an Irishman. One is more cynical. "It will take 10 years to get the country back to where it was two weeks ago," he says.

Since the civil war began in 1991, greater Monrovia (the capital of Liberia) has been a "safe area" for about a million displaced people from the interior and a staging area for aid operations throughout Liberia.

Fighting is reported to be continuing for the second week running with shelling and sniper fire throughout the city. Some 60,000 civilians are at risk of starvation. With most aid groups gone, "the future only holds renewed violence," according to one UN staff member.

But what concerns people here still more is the prospect of humanitarian disaster spreading through the region, with millions of displaced and hungry Liberians crossing into neighboring countries, including Sierra Leone.

On Wednesday, two new boat loads of evacuees from Liberia arrived in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Most of those on board were Lebanese business executives and UN and ECOMOG soldiers. But there was panic that Liberian "troublemakers" were among them. The Sierra Leone government has not yet allowed one of the ships to dock.

Sierra Leone has reason to be concerned. The five-year-old civil war here began when the civil war in Liberia spilled across the border. A Liberian faction leader, Charles Taylor, helped create the Sierra Leonean rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

"Now we have finally achieved a fragile cease-fire with RUF and are about to negotiate a peace agreement," says Amy Smythe, a Cabinet minister in Sierra Leone's new government. "What will happen when all these desperate people come and again destabilize us?"

Cease-fire violations are already occurring in Sierra Leone. On Wednesday, villages in the north of Sierra Leone were attacked, with several civilians killed and many reports of torture. A number of women were raped and about 50 able-bodied men were abducted. There are widespread reports that fighters are using drugs, including crack cocaine, in both Sierra Leone and Liberia.

A UN staff member says that, from what he saw, the looters in Liberia often coordinated their activities even though they were from different factions. "It was one of the few times that I have seen them work together," he says.

Few people now can envisage a meaningful solution to the Liberia crisis, either in the short or long term. Some say that the international community should support the strongest leader. However, the leader who fits that bill is Charles Taylor, who is accused of starting the war.

The UN has appointed James Jonah as special envoy to Liberia to try to organize elections even before peace has been achieved. Mr. Jonah, a senior UN official and a Sierra Leonean citizen, had headed an election team in his country, which earlier this year saw the first multiparty vote in almost 30 years.

"I will go to Liberia to try to have a dialogue with all parties and ask them to share the experiences of Sierra Leone," he says. "Democracy ... does not solve all problems, but if the people chose a government, there is accountability."

The success of the Sierra Leonean model is far from assured. But Ghana is reported to have begun diplomatic efforts between Liberia's factional leaders. A meeting is planned to take place at the US Embassy soon. Faction leader Roosevelt Johnson, who is said to be barricaded in an army camp, has said he would attend.

On the beach in Sierra Leone, many Lebanese evacuees say they are eager to return. Lebanese control much of the business activity in Liberia and Sierra Leone. "We lost everything," says a diamond dealer, sipping cool drinks with his family at a beach restaurant. But he also said he will quickly find the means to start again.

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