COL. ABRAHAM KROMAH is fighting his own private war in Liberia's six-year-old civil conflict. His enemy is the drug scourge that has ravaged the country's youth, and in his eyes, led to the death of his teenage brother who was forced to join a rebel army.
"The rest [three other siblings] died at the hands of child soldiers who never knew what they were doing because they were under the influence of drugs," said Colonel Kromah, deputy director of Liberia's National Police and the head of Interpol in Monrovia, the capital. He said his brother, while on drugs provided by his rebel commanders, died in battle.
Before the war broke out in December 1989, Liberia was used as a transit point for drugs that had passed from Southeast Asia through Nigeria. But now the country has also become a drug-consuming nation, adding another problem for Liberians in addition to poverty and civil strife. The United Nations Drug Control Program, aware of the problem, opened a new office in Liberia last week.
"Today it's all over the place," said Edward Grant, a psychiatrist at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, who counsels and treats drug-addicted youths. "You can get heroin, you can get cocaine. Our national boundaries are porous now; there are no national customs officers to man the borders. Our drugs market is highly saturated."
Dr. Grant said the number of hard-core drug addicts in the capital has increased by 100 percent, compared with what it was before the war and that he has treated at least 75 youngsters for drug-related symptoms.
"It's just like a revolving door, because they don't have anywhere to go when they leave the hospital so they go back to the ghettos," he said.
Women resort to prostitution and young men to crime to support their $3-a-day drug habit of smoking cocaine- and heroin-laced cigarettes known as dugees. As a result, armed robbery and the rate of HIV infection have been on the rise over the past few years, Grant said.
"I took drugs in order that I would be brave on the front," said ex-soldier Bill Gabriel. "I took tablets that I didn't even know what [they were]. I took cocaine and heroin, too."
Mr. Gabriel used to steal to support his habit and eventually ended up in the hospital for detoxification. He and other former fighters said children as young as 7 routinely took drugs even if "it was only to stave off hunger."
An informal survey conducted by the private organization Liberians United Against Drug and Substance Abuse found that nearly half of all children between the ages of 5 and 15 living in the ghettos smoked marijuana or took harder drugs, including LSD, which used to be sold in Monrovia pharmacies.
The city has become home to about 800,000 people - including displaced civilians and former combatants - in a country with a prewar population of 2.5 million. More than 150,000 people have been killed in fighting that was supposed to end with a peace accord signed last August. Battles flared up again this month, leading to the deaths of at least 20 African peacekeepers.
While the peacekeeping force has been instrumental in protecting the city, some Nigerians serving here have been among those who are trafficking drugs, officials said. Their luggage isn't subject to search.
Kromah said his office has been working with Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency in trying to stem the flow of narcotics through Monrovia. But he fears the influx of drugs could rise in the coming months because direct flights have resumed from Nigeria on ADC airlines, which people here have dubbed as African Drugs Carrier.
Nigeria is Africa's largest trans-shipment point for hard drugs coming from Southeast Asia.
Kromah said his office seized nearly $2.5 million worth of heroin and cocaine in the country last year alone. Nearly all the confiscated drugs came from Nigeria.
With international attention focused there, some drug traffickers have found it easier to conceal their smuggling by using Monrovia and neighboring Freetown, Sierra Leone, as points of export.
They can easily buy a Liberian passport and pass through United States customs with less scrutiny. The traffickers also employ Liberians left in desperate straits because of the war to act as couriers.
"We are quite aware of these problems, but just how much we are able to do about it depends on our resource capacity," said Joseph Jallah, who heads Liberia's National Interministerial Drug Committee, sponsored by the United Nations Drug Control Program.
It trained 10 officers for Liberia and supplied computers and other material, as well as one vehicle.