More than 600,000 Liberians in this war-devastated West African nation flocked to the polls recently to elect a new president for the first time in more than 12 years. Many began to gather at polling sites shortly after midnight with lanterns and sleeping mats. By dawn, long queues snaked through the morning mist.
But to the dismay of many in the international community, this orderly democratic exercise yielded an overwhelming majority for Charles Taylor, an avowed warlord responsible for countless deaths, mutilations, and brutalities during Liberia's seven-year civil war. This tally was obtained despite the fact that the elections were monitored by several hundred international observers and declared, from a technical point of view, to be free and fair.
Perhaps the most important factor underlying the surprising majority that Mr. Taylor achieved was those votes cast by the thousands of Liberians who are acutely aware of Taylor's record - and who voted for him precisely because of the atrocities he has committed. For people who have lived with war for almost a decade, uprooted from their homes and in flight, the choice was a simple one. Putting up with Taylor in exchange for peace and stability - no matter how tenuous - is a far better option than watching his forces again ravage the countryside in their ruthless quest for power. In the eyes of these voters, a victory for anyone else would have meant almost certain resumption of the bush warfare that has cost the lives of so many of their family members and friends.
The extent of the carnage from Liberia's civil war is devastating: More than 5 percent of the population has been killed, more than half a million Liberians have fled the country, and almost 1 out of every 2 of those remaining have been displaced from their home villages. While many have returned in recent months, the extent of internal displacement is so great that the country's traditional electoral system of geographic representation had to be abandoned in favor of countrywide, party-based, proportional representation.
Villages that as recently as 10 years ago had bustling markets now are overgrown by jungle, marked only by the occasional crumbling cement wall. Infrastructure throughout the country has been razed. There has been no electricity in the capital for more than seven years, and there is no communication, other than by radio, between Monrovia and the rest of the country. Only three main roads in Liberia are paved, and many of the more remote areas are inaccessible during the five-month rainy season. Unemployment is endemic, and illiteracy is over 70 percent in many areas.
Most tragic of all, a generation of youth - including the very young - have been severely scarred by having to endure war atrocities, witnessing their family members being brutalized and killed, and being forced into service as child soldiers.
Whether Taylor or anyone else will be able to make significant headway over the next few years in addressing Liberia's severe social and economic ills is questionable. However, for the international community to turn its back wholesale on Liberia in protest of Taylor will assure continuation of the country's downward spiral and perpetuation of its already protracted refugee crisis.
The international political and humanitarian aid communities should actively challenge Taylor on human rights issues and hold him to his promises to promote reconciliation, establish a human rights commission, and create a fair forum for redress of civilian grievances. Well-justified abhorrence of his record should not inhibit international engagement in addressing Liberia's human tragedy.
* Mary Fitzpatrick is a field representative for Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy organization.