In Liberia, citizens take on security
Vigilante groups have formed to protect Monrovia's neighborhoods where peacekeepers are stretched thin.
MONROVIA, LIBERIA — When night falls on Millionaire's Quarter, a ramshackle neighborhood of tin houses and concrete churches, a silence caused by fear overtakes these normally bustling streets. Moses Wesseh sets a tire alight, hefts his cutlass - a long machete-like knife - and settles in for a long watch at this civilian road block.
"We formed the vigilante groups to protect our life and property," says Mr. Wesseh, who has spent the past four nights at his roadblock and patrolling the neighborhood. West African peacekeepers, he says, aren't doing enough to protect people. "They just protect the bridges and the port. So we have to protect ourselves."
In the four days since rebels withdrew from this part of Monrovia and handed it over to West African peacekeepers, citizens have begun organizing themselves in vigilante protection groups to fill the security vacuum left when the rebels departed. The rise of these neighborhood groups shows that though the West Africans have succeeded in stopping the fighting, there is still much to be done before security is restored.
With just one company of about 120 men in this part of the city, West African peacekeepers have little time for policing, although they say they have begun responding to civilian complaints when they can. Most of the small force is used to control strategic points like the ports, bridges, and main road, leaving citizens like those in the ironically named Millionaire's Quarter to fend mostly for themselves.
Over 1,000 West African peacekeepers are deployed here out of an expected 3,250-strong force.
About 150 American marines are based at the airport outside Monrovia as part of a rapid reaction force to support the West Africans if they encounter trouble, and six are based at the port to help the West Africans with logistics. But for now, the Americans are leaving the heavy peacekeeping work to the Nigerian-dominated West African force known as ECOMIL.
Just a few houses down the street from Wesseh's roadblock stands an empty and gutted Liberian police station with a sign telling civilians to call 911 from a cellphone in an emergency. Locals laugh and say the phones never worked and the police were corrupt even before they fled on July 19 - but they provided some semblance of law and order.
Things weren't so bad under the rebels either, say most people, though there is evidence the rebels did commit some atrocities against civilians. For the most part, however, people say the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) shared their food - mostly looted from the port - and punished soldiers for attacks on civilians. At least two rebels were executed last week for killing a civilian, a move that caused divisions among the group's leadership.
"The LURD were good to us," says Bankole Bakare, from the stoop of his father's house across from the police station. "They shared their food and left us alone. But now we are afraid."
The rebels' withdrawal has left many here fearing chaos. Cars, including one belonging to the British aid group Oxfam, have been hijacked in broad daylight at gunpoint, and there is little to stop the thieves. West African peacekeepers also say several people have also been brought to them with cutlass wounds.
But most people's greatest fear is of the government militias, who they believe, are stealing across the swamp at night from government territory, or crossing bridges in civilian clothes. Rumors abound that the militias, mostly young boys toting AK-47s, are coming to execute people in the night, rape women, and loot houses.
A few vigilante groups, like Wesseh's, even say they've arrested suspected government soldiers and handed them over to ECOMIL, although West African peacekeepers say most of those caught are just common criminals. Last Thursday, on their first night of patrol, Wesseh says his group caught 17 people.
"We've received intelligence that government soldiers are coming across the swamp in the night, so we are very worried about that," says Daniel Coleman, from beneath a New York Yankees cap. He is a commander of the Gbandi Town and Vickey's Spot vigilante group.
"We also catch people who are disturbing things - like someone who is intoxicated or criminally minded - and take them to the elderly." He says the community elders punish people for minor infractions, sometimes with beatings.
In the darkness, the glow of fires from burning tires can be seen in Monrovia's streets. The men on watch sip coffee and eat snacks donated by grateful neighbors, thankful for the small protection they provide.
Occasionally, an alarm rings out signaling danger, usually a church bell, whistle, or plastic container beaten like a drum. People flood into the street to backup the vigilante groups, who carry only cutlasses and rely on the community to support their efforts.
"We don't have guns. We are peaceful civilians," says Mr. Coleman. "All we can do is wait until everyone comes out on the street.