A durable peace for Liberia may finally be in sight as the Nigerian-led West African Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG) collects weapons from more than 60,000 rebels - a move crucial to ending the seven-year-old civil war.
The voluntary disarmament began Friday with about 600 fighters turning in their weapons, and is expected to end Jan. 31 in preparation for May's general elections. Observers say the disarmament is a sign that an "African solution" to Liberia's lingering civil war is possible.
The war has killed more than 160,000 of the country's 2.5 million people, displaced more than 200,000 others, and sent nearly a million people fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring states.
About 1 million Liberians are clustered at squalid camps near the capital, Monrovia, a city with scant electricity and an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent. The refugees are anxious to return to their homes, but are afraid to do so until the guns that have overtaken their villages, land, and lives are gone.
"I will ... return home the day God helps them to disarm. It is only the guns that are keeping me here," says refugee Musa Dagoseh.
Edwin Fahnbulleh, who lost his wife and children in an attack in 1990, says he is prepared to return to his northwestern hometown of Medina and forgive the combatants once they surrender their arms to ECOMOG. "Taking the guns from the fighters will afford us the opportunity to once again have peace, regain our freedom, and find food for ourselves," he says.
Ruth Perry, head of the transitional government that is comprised of the country's key warlords, hails the disarmament as essential for fair elections in May.
But some Liberians are wary: Accords and cease-fires have broken down routinely since the war erupted on Christmas Eve in 1989. And although disarmament is gaining momentum in the western region of the country, which is controlled by faction leaders Alhaji Kromah and Roosevelt Johnson, there are reports of heavy fighting in the southeast between groups headed by militia leaders Charles Taylor and George Boley.
In Monrovia, people are apprehensive about the slow pace of voluntary disarmament. Few fighters are turning in their guns at arms-collection centers. A number of rebels say they want to disarm, but are afraid of being pointed out as killers. Others brought their arms and ammunition concealed in bags and abandoned them near disarmament sites for ECOMOG to collect. Still others can be seen hawking weapons on the street.
Questions are also being raised about ECOMOG's ability to disarm the rebels - and the continued delay of long-awaited peacekeeping reinforcements.
But force commander Victor Malu assures critics that ECOMOG's present force has the ability to deal with intransigent parties.