Battered Liberians aid each other

Local volunteers are filling the void left by the exodus of international relief workers.

For weeks, the streets of Monrovia's West Point neighborhood have been emptied of life, the rubbish-filled alleys silent except for the ping of flying bullets and crash of mortars.

There are only two groups of people willing to venture out into this no-man's land between government and rebel troops: drug-crazed or drunken soldiers, too far gone to understand the danger, and a few selfless volunteers. Clement Robinson falls into the second category: Liberians who plunge into this treacherous no-go zone again and again to transport the injured to safety. And across town, Miatta Roberts counsels rape victims, another casualty caught up in this country's war.

"I love my people," Mr. Robinson says simply, as if such courage were commonplace. "It's for humanity's sake."

Monrovia is now a city of tragedy and brutality, where young boys rape grandmothers, and mothers look on helplessly as their children starve. But amid the horror, there are heroic stories of everyday people working on the front lines and in refugee camps. They have remained in the thick of Liberia's war, even after international organizations have pulled their foreign staff, and with them the buffer and relative security that expatriate relief workers provide.

When the bombs started falling here in mid-June, Robinson woke one morning to find his home near the front line. Those who could fled to safer ground. But Robinson, a nurse, stayed behind, deciding he would offer what help he could. For the past month and a half, he and about two-dozen others have made hundreds of trips through the streets of Monrovia, collecting the injured, sick, and dead.

Protected only by the white bibs donated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), they rush to the sites of mortar attacks, carrying victims on stretchers or borrowed carts.

TheCatholic clinicwhere Robinson and his co-workers are based has no doctor - only a few nurses and a physician's assistant - so serious cases must be transported to an MSF hospital, or a hospital more than a mile away run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"When we hear the sound of a rocket [mortar], we rush to the sound," says Varlee Talawoly, another volunteer. Hundreds have been injured and killed here by the misdirected mortars that have fallen on terrified refugees.

"But sometimes you would be there picking up a person, and another rocket would fall behind you."

Robinson pulls a tattered book from his pocket, filled with almost 700 names, each representing a person - soldier or civilian - whom he rescued from the streets of West Point,and a time he risked his life for an unknown fellow Liberian. He knows nothing of their fate, just their names and ages.

As he points out a building where he rescued two families after a mortar attack last week, a bullet flies by.

"Incoming," he says. "From the LURD [the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy]. You can tell by the kind of gun."

At the Samuel Doe Stadium across town, more than 50,000 people have taken refuge, packed into dank, dim rooms beneath the stadium. Despite the conditions, those who come here are the lucky ones, because many of the city's aid organizations have made this their base. There is medical care, counseling, and basic sanitation, provided largely by the Liberians who remained when international organizations pulled out their expatriate staff several weeks ago.

Since the first Nigerian peacekeepers arrived Monday, several international organizations including the World Food Program and Save the Children have sent emergency aid shipments through Monrovia's airport. But expatriate staff have not returned, and until they do it will be locals like Ms. Roberts who bear the brunt of Liberia's vast humanitarian crisis.

In one small, empty tent at Samuel Doe, Roberts and her staff receive what seems like a never-ending stream of women.

A 16-year-old girl hobbles in on crutches. Rebels shot her in the foot as she fled their advance, then raped her and left her for dead. Another woman, a young mother, looks ahead blankly as she describes her attackers - government soldiers. "They were small, small," she says, meaning just children.

Of the 50,000 people at Samuel Doe, about 1,500 women have passed through this tent run by a local nongovernmental organization called the Concerned Christian Community (CCC) since June, with stories of rape and assault.

There have been so many that the group is building another tent. And Roberts believes there are thousands more who cannot reach the relative safety of the stadium.

As much as possible, the CCC travels to outlying neighborhoods to bring counseling and medical care to victims in other parts of the city. A sign of the scope of the problem: during one visit, 89 women came forward in two hours, despite the enormous stigma that Liberian women who have been assaulted must endure.

"Right now, it is just rampant," says Mariama Brown, CCC's national director. "Government forces are doing it, rebels are doing it. Women are being stopped on their way into the city or pulled out of their houses at night."

These visits entail more risk to Roberts and her co-workers than just bullets and mortars. They have received threats from soldiers who say the group is making the government look bad by publicizing the rapes. Once, Roberts hid for days after a group of soldiers threatened to rape her. A counselor by training, she says she helps these women because they are the forgotten casualties of war.

Monday, in West Point, the streets were packed for the first time in weeks by residents giddy with the excitement of their new freedom.

The arrival of the first Nigerian peacekeepers brought a temporary halt to the fighting, and rebels raised a white flag to symbolize their desire for peace. It was a light day at the Catholic clinic: only six injuries, all relatively minor.

For volunteers like Robinson, it is a tantalizing glimmer of peace.

"Maybe soon we can all go home," he says.

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