Give Peace, Not Food, to Liberia

The starving in Liberia have requested the humanitarian community to stop delivering food.

As incredible as it sounds, the innocent victims of that West African nation's seven-year civil war have said that they would rather face starvation than risk being attacked for their meager rations. Late last month in western Liberia, more than 25 civilians were killed and their rations taken by fighters. This was not the first time, and will not be the last, that the innocents of Liberia have had their relief rations brutally wrested from them.

Recent reports from the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations say that fighters from various factions have held up relief convoys, taken relief workers hostage, used the civilians as bait to attract relief materials, and then forced them to carry and cook the stolen food.

As a result, the civilians have reportedly told UN World Food Program workers that they would prefer to take their chances with malnutrition and disease rather than be brutalized, killed, or enslaved for the sake of a few cups of bulgur wheat.

In some places the UN has had to curtail distribution of rations. In other cases, aid workers are agonizing over whether dispatching relief food will prove fatal to the recipients. At other times, the renewal of fighting makes it impossible to ship relief supplies to the needy.

This is happening in the midst of a "cease fire" and a recently installed interim government, all part of a peace process that few give much chance of success. But before we give vent to cynicism about the hopes of Africa, let's take stock of what is and is not happening.

The faction leaders have signed a peace accord and have committed to demobilization. However, the faction leaders do not actually control the day-to-day activities of their fighters.

The fighters, about 60,000 of them, are not regular soldiers. Many are young men and boys ages 12 to 25. They do not have uniforms or a regular command structure. They live off the land, robbing those they have conquered or ostensibly are supposed to protect.

Much of the promised manpower, funds, and materials for peacekeeping has not arrived. The European Union has committed - on paper - to a demobilization program for 10,000 fighters. There are scant few plans for the remaining 50,000 fighters. It is difficult to believe the international community is truly committed to Liberia's peace process.

A true commitment would take the so-called warlords at their word and move the peace process along with the relatively simple tasks of peacekeeping and quartering.

Quartering is the stage before demobilization during which the fighters are allowed to remain with their units and maintain their arms in a camp setting. They receive food and clothing while being medically and psychologically screened. Quartering does not need special facilities - disused schools, government buildings, or bush camps will do.

Once the fighters are quartered two things can happen. First, the relief food can reach those who desperately need it without making them vulnerable to attack. Second, demobilization will be jump-started.

The cynics may say that this is impossible and expensive. But disarmament and demobilization are what the warlords and fighters have asked for. As for expense, just how many more thousands of Liberians have to die before we reach the break-even point of geopolitical cost-benefit analysis?

*Will Lynch is a senior member of Catholic Relief Service's West Africa Team. He lived and worked in Africa, including Liberia, for 12 years.

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