With Liberian peace, aid comes ashore

Outside the derelict building she calls home, 2-year-old Princess surveys her crude lunch of cassava and palm oil with distaste. But she and her twin brother, Prince - abandoned at birth - are fortunate to have even that.

Since the 450 children of the Daniel Hoover Orphanage were displaced last month from their new, million-dollar home outside town by advancing rebels, they've been sleeping on the floor of an abandoned building, living on handouts.

Sometimes a church gives them a bag of rice or a little money. But for the most part, survival is day to day. "Looted food has brought the market price down, which is a blessing," says Aya Shneerson, emergency director for the World Food Program (WFP). "But the very poor, the most vulnerable, don't necessarily have money to buy that."

Since the bridge dividing rebel and government Monrovia opened late last week, a robust market of looted food, mostly WFP aid, relieved some of the humanitarian pressure here. With former president Charles Taylor gone and the rebels withdrawn from the city, peace has allowed humanitarian organizations to get back to work, and the first aid shipments have begun arriving at Monrovia's recently accessible port.

But aid groups are warning that the scope of Liberia's humanitarian crisis is massive. War has displaced hundreds of thousands and destroyed the city's fragile infrastructure. Some people have returned to homes within the secure zone patrolled by West African peacekeepers, known as ECOMIL, but often they return to looted houses with the doors kicked in.

So great is the need that when the WFP first began distributing food late last week, they were mobbed by hungry people. Now they work with the help of West African peacekeepers.

The WFP estimates that it will need close to 50,000tons of food to feed people here until December, although that figure is likely to rise when more of the country becomes accessible. Only 3,300 tons of corn meal remained in their port warehouses when the rebels withdrew. Ships, diverted from other emergencies, are already en route and should arrive in a week to 10 days. But getting food to Monrovia is only part of the problem.

Two months of fierce fighting and heavy looting have destroyed the infrastructure of most aid groups working here. The WFP lost most of its vehicles, which were stored on the rebel side of the city. A mortar hit the office of World Vision. Evacuated international staff must come back and scattered local staff regroup. And even with the reopening of the port, basic commodities like gasoline, necessary to transport the WFP's remaining corn meal, are still in scarce supply.

Humanitarian organizations are also worried about the crisis they can't see - outside Monrovia in the inaccessible parts of the country. Even before the current conflict, just 20 percent of Liberia was accessible. Now, only Monrovia can be reached.

In recent days, groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Doctors Without Borders have traveled to Liberia's second major city, Buchanan, and to rebel-held territory in the north to assess the situation there.

But no one knows how the rest of the country has fared: whether people have remained through the conflict or fled the country.

What aid groups do know is that Liberia's population is more than three million. About half that number lives in or around Monrovia. The rest, they say, have been cut off from the capital for years and are probably in great need.

"The problem is security," says Virginia de la Guardia, a spokeswoman for ICRC. "ECOMIL needs to deploy and restore security. Not just in Buchanan, but in the rest of the country as well."

Once security has been restored, aid groups can reach far-flung Liberians, and Monrovia's refugees can be encouraged to go home or return to camps outside the city where schools, health facilities, water, and services can be provided.

All this, however, depends on maintaining the still-fragile peace here. Though the rebels have withdrawn from Monrovia and fighting has largely halted, there has been no agreement on a transitional government.

New President Moses Blah came home this weekend after negotiations in Accra, Ghana, unable to come to an agreement with rebels. And the rebels have been making noise about returning to arms if their demands are not met.

Meanwhile, here in Monrovia, the WFP delivered a shipment of energy bars Sunday for Princess and her brother and the other orphanage children. But the youngsters are still waiting to return home to the building they were forced to flee.

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