The sisters-in-arms of Liberia's war

Some of the fiercest warriors in Liberia wear tube tops and polished fingernails.

Black Diamond could be the prototype for an action hero, a sort of African "Lara Croft." She's all sleek muscle and form-fitting clothes, with an AK-47 and red beret.

She has a bevy of supporting beauties, equally stylish, who loiter nearby, polished fingernails clutching the cold steel of semi-automatic weapons.

But this is no video game or action flick; it is one of Africa's most intransigent and brutal conflicts, where child soldiers brag about killing the "dogs" on the other side, and ragtag militias rape and pillage their way across the countryside.

In other African conflicts, like Uganda and Congo, women have participated in rebel movements, but usually in supporting roles. They cook, clean, and often sleep with soldiers - not always by choice. But here in Liberia, often out of revenge for husbands slain at the hands of the enemy, women have fought on the front line as part of an elite and feared unit unique on the continent.

Now as a new peace deal tries to take hold here, women like Black Diamond and her troops face the prospect of rejoining society after years of combat.

Black Diamond's girls are mostly orphans who found their way to this rebel army because they had nowhere else to go. And Black Diamond herself, the nom de guerre of Liberia's highest-ranking women rebel, is a fearsome commander known for handcuffing wayward soldiers - male and female - to an air conditioning grate and beating them with a rubber hose.

Diamond leads a whole unit of fighting women, called, depending on who is asked, the Women's Auxiliary Corps or the Women's Artillery Commandos. According to Diamond's deputy, Marie Teah, a short-haired woman with crude tattoos of poisonous animals running up both arms, there are 600 women fighting for the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), most of them children, although that figure is probably exaggerated.

Two weeks ago, LURD withdrew from Monrovia and handed over their part of the city to West African peacekeepers as part of a new peace deal. Last week, Gyude Bryant, an independent businessman, was chosen to take control of an interim government in October, paving the way for elections to be held within two years. Still, there were unconfirmed reports Monday that fighting continues in the diamond-rich northeast part of the country.

Since major combat ended, some of the girls have left to find their families, but most, like their male counterparts, have nowhere to go.

"I want to go to school and become a nurse," says 16-year-old Capt. Gertrude Gabolee, a round-faced girl with long yellow braids who claims she killed "plenty" of people during her two years on the front line. "But I have no family to help me."

At the back of an abandoned lumberyard filled with wood scraps and old machinery stands a looted building that once served as a command center for Black Diamond and her women. A pair of handcuffs still hangs from the air conditioning grate and the graffiti on one wall still reads: "No stupid men allow."

"Men are stronger than women, but we shoot straighter and are more disciplined," says Ms. Teah, who keeps a loaded .38-caliber colt in her jeans and an AK-47 close at hand. "The same thing the men do here, the women do."

Indeed, many of LURD's male soldiers positively cower in the face of the women fighters, especially Black Diamond. She lived in the lumberyard house with her husband, a commander named Colonel Yankee, before retreating with LURD to a new headquarters 40 miles away. They say the thin, 5-foot-6-inch woman could carry a 110-pound bag of rice tossed over her shoulder with ease.

With the exception of a few commanders, most members of the women's unit are young, and in their first war. But they are as battle hardened as their young male companions, although some civilians say they are also more merciful.

Members of LURD's women's unit have fought and died on the front line and helped barrage the government with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Like the men, they brag about the numbers they've killed and the wounds they received in battle.

Captain Gabolee tosses back her yellow braids and pulls up her flared jeans to reveal an ugly battle scar that contrasts with her brightly painted toenails and strappy sandals. Another girl, a 14-year-old called Baby Girl for her round, innocent face, displays the bullet holes in her back and leg with pride.

"The women are slower to train, but when they are trained, they are even more brave than the men," says Col. Martin Collins, a senior officer in LURD. "They are not as strong, but they are good fighters."

While the women may fight alongside the men, their commanders hold them to a different standard of behavior. According to civilians living nearby, the women rarely drank, smoked, or used drugs. And although in many wars women and women soldiers are forced to have sex with the male soldiers, LURD's fighting women shunned such relationships.

"Why would I want to do that?" asked Captain Gabolee, when asked if she had a boyfriend among the male soldiers. "I don't have time for that. I have a mission."

That mission was to bring down Liberian President Charles Taylor, who went into exile on Aug. 11. LURD women, like the men, blame Taylor for the chaos of the past 14 years, and believe their ethnic group, the Mandingo, have been excluded from Liberian politics. For some of the women, like Musu Dukley, the fight is personal. Her husband, she says, died at the hands of government soldiers two years ago.

Hoping the war is over, Black Diamond and her women are looking forward to peace. Teah, a seamstress, wants to sew suits for Liberia's new leaders, and Diamond wants to return to the young daughter she left in Guinea with relatives.

"Right now I can't sew clothes because of the conditions we live in," muses Teah. "But we are thanking God the war is over."

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