Desperate Liberia gets lull, at least

Seven US marines landed in Monrovia Wednesday as liaisons.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Thousands of desperate Liberians seized on the relative calm here Wednesday to search for food and water.

Spurred by a lull in fighting after the arrival of foreign peacekeepers, they tried to cross bridges from government-held territory into the rebel stronghold near the port and its warehouses full of thousands of tons of corn, rice, and wheat.

James Morris, a shoe shiner, clutched a battered silver watch with part of its strap missing. He said he hoped to trade it for a few cups of rice. "We just want peace," he said.

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Hopes for an end to the three-year civil war have been visibly buoyed by the arrival, beginning Monday, of West African peacekeepers, eventually to number 3,250. Wednesday, seven US Marines landed by helicopter at the US embassy in Monrovia.

US officials said the Marines will work only as liaisons between the West Africans and US commanders on three American warships now anchored off Liberia.

Several hundred Nigerian peacekeepers are expected to begin deploying in government territory Thursday "to make their presence known," according to the Nigerian Force Commander, Gen. Festus Okonkwo. But it will be several days before they move into rebel turf.

The news that the Nigerians had arrived at Monrovia's airport, about 30 miles from the capital, was enough to stop the shooting. Thousands of people poured into the streets and soldiers from both sides of Liberia's conflict crossed the two bridges that have been the frontline to embrace and exchange gifts.

"No more war, we want peace," shouted a drunk government soldier who called himself "General Uncle T," his AK-47 held high above his head, after crossing the Old Bridge into rebel-held territory Tuesday. After a half hour on the other side, he came back exclaiming: "We rapped together, we danced together, we played football together. We are all brothers."

Tenuous calm

Despite the jubilation evident on both sides, the peace is fragile. Key rebel demands, most notably the departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor, have not been met. The rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), say they will not withdraw from the city and Monrovia's strategic port until Taylor leaves. And the government warns that until the LURD withdraws from the city, any peace is easily broken.

"I hope no one should tempt me, because I feel the temptation," Liberian Gen. Benjamin Yeaten, a top military official, told reporters Tuesday as US Ambassador John Blaney and General Okonkwo returned from a trip to meet rebel leaders and discuss the cease-fire.

When the convoy carrying Ambassador Blaney and General Okonkwo crossed into the devastated rebel territory - the first real sign of the peacekeepers' presence on that side - the few remaining residents there lined the street to greet them. Women threw their hands skyward in joy, while men raised their arms, fingers spread in a "V" for peace.

But for most Liberians, there was little time for celebration. On the government side, where food is scarce, the price of a cup of rice, Liberia's staple, has risen to 100 Liberian dollars, about $2 at current rates, and gasoline is selling for an astronomical $35 a gallon. In a country that ranks as one of the world's poorest during normal times, such prices are out of reach for all but the wealthiest.

Relief agencies have rushed aid shipments to Monrovia, where two months of rebel sieges have killed more than 1,000 civilians. But the fighting cut off the port - and the main water plant - from the government-held side, leaving civilians there critically short of food and water.

As people tried to reach the food warehouses Wednesday, government soldiers held them back, beating them with sticks and firing into the air. On the other side, rebel soldiers have looted the foodstocks on their turf, and some have been seen driving around in World Food Program vehicles. But the rebels have also reportedly been sharing food with civilians living in their area.

Liberia's citizens and soldiers seem equally weary of war. In the lull in shooting, fighters on both sides have exchanged money and clothes with their enemies, despite admonitions from superior officers to maintain decorum. "Why you crossing the line?" yelled one government officer at his excited men, most just boys in flip flops sporting elaborate hairdos and waving talismans thought to protect them in battle. "You wanna be a rebel, too?"

A generation of violence

The presence of so many armed males, many of them just children, remains a threat in this city, even if political and military leaders call an official halt to the hostilities here. After 14 years of nearly constant war, a whole generation of young men has grown up under arms and knows no other way of life. Breaking the cycle of war will require a successful disarmament and rehabilitation of these young men.

"It will be peace if the UN comes and collects our weapons and gives us money," says Victor Fayah, a government soldier who is now 27 and has been fighting since the age of 14. "If they don't, anyone who comes, we will join them. We'll spoil the whole thing."

Like many here, Mr. Fayah says he will not give up his weapon for free. In 1997, he says, he willingly handed over his weapon to peacekeepers. He was given 2,000 Liberian dollars, the equivalent at today's exchange rate of about $40.

But that money was soon gone, and a year later, desperate, he joined the Army again. His unit has not been paid in two years, but their guns, he says, give them the power to take what they need. Now, he wants at least $300 for his weapon and the promise of school or a job. "If the UN doesn't pay us, we will take the weapons, the guns and the grenades, and we will rob," he says.

Material from the AP was used in this report.

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