Liberian Refugees: The Gulf's Other Victims

THE generosity that a number of countries around the world have shown to the more than 500,000 people uprooted by the Gulf crisis - many of them Asians who had been working in Kuwait and Iraq - has been heartening. Although the suddenness of the crisis caught the international community off guard, the refugees' situation has improved. While those who are still trapped in Kuwait and Iraq remain in a precarious situation, at least much world concern and attention is being focused on them. There has been no such generous response, concern, or attention for the victims of the brutal civil war in Liberia. Their plight, overshadowed by events in the Gulf, is tragic, and demands urgent action.

There have been difficulties in getting aid to the victims of the Gulf crisis. Many were stranded in the middle of the desert, and no clear international system existed for aiding people in their situation. However, through the combined efforts - and political will - of governments, international organizations, and private relief groups worldwide, high-profile media coverage, and quite substantial amounts of money, the international community is finding ways to respond to their needs.

Difficulties also exist in aiding the civilians affected by the Liberian crisis. If the international community could spare some of its goodwill, creativity, and funds for them too, their suffering could also be alleviated.

At greatest risk in the Liberia are the 100,000 to 150,000 civilians, mostly women and small children and those too old or sick to flee, who are trapped in Monrovia, the besieged capital. Without water for five months, and food for two months, they are slowly starving. Hundreds of thousands of other Liberians have fled to the relative safety of refugee camps in neighboring countries. But they too are short of food, because the international community has been unwilling to respond adequately to their need.

Besides the US contribution, the international community has pledged $200 million to aid the Gulf's uprooted. Yet a United Nations appeal for just $12 million to assist nearly half a million Liberian refugees in Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone has yielded only $4.3 million from nations other than the US.

Even more aid than that already requested is likely to be needed. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen, who has just been in Liberia and met with both main rebel leaders, said that the prospects for increased warfare are growing. Another US official who also recently returned from Monrovia described the situation there as the worst he's witnessed in 20 years of relief work. Desperate for water, people literally drink from the sewers. Cholera and other diseases are rampant. Children who are still strong enough fight over scraps of food.

When night falls, armed hooligans, many of them soldiers belonging to what is left of the army of the late president, Samuel Doe, rape, pillage, and murder at will. Virtually all aid workers, including those of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the one agency that is often able to assist civilians trapped in war zones, have had to leave because their safety could not be guaranteed.

Protecting and assisting both those in Monrovia and the refugees who have fled to neighboring countries is clearly not an easy matter. There is no internationally agreed-on system for responding to people caught in such situations. The ICRC is experienced in civil conflict and prepared to help, but is unable to go into Monrovia because the warring parties refuse to guarantee ICRC personnel's safety.

A group of West African nations sent a small military force to attempt to restore some order in Monrovia. But not only does it appear not to have the experience or capacity to achieve that goal, the force now seems to be actively participating in the conflict. Clearly, restoring order and protecting the civilians in Monrovia would require a far larger, broader-based effort, such as a UN peace-keeping force.

Getting adequate aid to Liberian refugees in neighboring countries has also been difficult. They settled in regions that are difficult to reach (particularly in Guinea, where the majority have gone); there was no already-established relief network to respond to the emergency; and their plight has generated little international humanitarian response.

Liberians are not sitting atop large oil reserves. The only ``hostages'' involved in the Liberian crisis have been other West Africans who had been working in Liberia. And, because of Liberia's historical links with the US, Liberia is viewed by many in the international donor community as something of an American dependency. But the ``Liberian problem'' is not just an ``American problem.''

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