Rampage by Teen Rebels in Liberia Keeps Foreign Aid Workers Away

Every morning when she ventures from the protected compound where all the city's United Nations workers now stay, Agnes Asekenye-Oonya sees plenty of reasons why international aid agencies should be reluctant about coming back to Liberia.

They are the UN and other aid agency jeeps - more than 150 of them - stolen during the chaotic fighting and looting spree that began last month, that have now become odd status symbols for this country's teenage fighters.

The white jeeps are usually painted over - army fatigue designs are the most popular - and scrawled with names like "Colonel Death." Young, T-shirted soldiers hang from the sides, stand on the back bumper, and sprawl across the roof and hood, an AK-47 or two poised defiantly.

And the audacity doesn't stop there. When Ms. Asekenye-Oonya, of the UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs, attended a recent meeting to plot strategies for getting the cars returned, she was stunned when a Liberian government official drove up in a very familiar jeep.

"We are seeing looted cars in the hands of the government officials who are supposed to be helping us get them back," she says disbelievingly.

The vehicles are only the most visible part of what was taken from relief organizations, who by early estimates suffered a $20 million loss in food, medicine, and damage to their offices. Virtually all international aid workers were evacuated from Liberia shortly after the recent fighting began. Their absence is exacerbating an impending humanitarian crisis as the local relief workers who remain struggle to be useful with dwindling supplies and no way to deliver them.

On a muddy hillside across from the American Embassy, Edet Inwang, a Liberian doctor, presides at a rickety wooden table that has become a makeshift clinic for some 12,000 displaced people now camped here. With virtually no drugs, no clean water, and poor sanitation, Dr. Inwang and his workers are concerned about possible epidemics.

They also worry about widespread malnutrition. The chaos in Monrovia has paralyzed distribution of seed rice in the rest of the country, and fields must be planted within the next two weeks.

Several agencies plan to drive bags of seed to the border with Ivory Coast and hope Liberian farmers can make their way there to pick them up.

For those who've spent years trying to work amid Liberia's violent teenage factions, frustration is high. Though last month's rampage inflicted the worst damage in the seven-year war, it wasn't the first time the agencies have been robbed of property.

Fighters at militia leader Charles Taylor's rural base Gbarnga reportedly still drive jeeps stolen from the humanitarian group Doctors without Borders four year ago. Sean Lowry, an aid worker with CARE-USA says that without an effective government or peacekeeping force on the ground, relief workers simply don't have the same protections they receive elsewhere.

"It's very difficult to go to a roadblock of 14-year-old kids who've been in the bush for six years ... and who are most likely drugged up on something, and expect that they understand what neutrality means, or what a humanitarian mandate is," he says.

Mr. Lowry was among several aid experts visiting Monrovia last week to assess whether to re-open programs in Liberia. He mused that perhaps agencies could drop their neutrality and use a particular faction as protection. But then he shook his head, thinking about the safety risks that would pose.

A deciding factor for most agencies will be the willingness of donors. "It's depressing to tell the donors, "You gave us vehicles, we lost them, please give us some more," says the UN's Asekenye-Oonya. "But it's important to understand that probably 90 percent of the population isn't responsible for this, and they need international help."

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