Liberia's Small Miracle: Fighters Turning In Weapons

April 10, 1994|By KAREN LANGE

MONROVIA, LIBERIA — Monrovia, Liberia.--For four years they ruled Liberia, fighters without uniforms, most in their teens, wielding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

They robbed and looted, beating or murdering any civilian who resisted.

They lived by their guns.

But a small miracle occurred last month in this country united until recently only by mistrust and fear.

The fighters began to surrender their weapons.

"They were extremely happy," said U.N. Special Representative Trevor Gordon-Somers, who watched. "They were singing songs and dancing around, and their commanders were cheering them on and dancing with them."

On March 7, the three parties to a July cease-fire formed a transitional government and ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force, began disarming fighters in the conflict that has left more than 150,000 dead and driven large segments of the population of 2.5 million from their homes.

The date for these moves was announced in mid-February, but few citizens of this West African country, founded by freed American slaves in 1821, believed it would be honored.

"They have said so many things. . . . But in the end we have seen nothing -- things have gotten worse," said Ellen Suwo Johnson, who waits in Guinea for the United Nations to tell her it's safe to go home.

"We have hoped, hoped, hoped, hoped, hoped. And they have said, said, said, said, said. How soon is soon? How many times do we have to have hope?" said a man living in Monrovia, the capital, who did not want his name used because he fears members of one of the warring factions.

The war started in December 1989, when Charles Taylor and a small band of rebels invaded from neighboring Ivory Coast to topple unpopular military ruler Samuel K. Doe. By July 1990, Mr. Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had reached the capital of Monrovia.

In August 1990, after Doe soldiers and rebels massacred civilians belonging to rival ethnic groups, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a peacekeeping force. As ECOMOG (the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group) took the capital, rebels captured Mr. Doe and tortured him to death. The peacekeeping force installed an interim government in Monrovia, but left Mr. Taylor in control of most of the country.

The stalemate broke in 1992, when a group of former Doe soldiers known as ULIMO (the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia) attacked the NPFL from Sierra Leone, and Mr. Taylor's forces launched an offensive against the capital.

ECOMOG, fighting with ULIMO and the remnants of Mr. Doe's army, pushed the NPFL back, taking about a third of Mr. Taylor's territory and forcing him to make peace in July 1993.

Under the cease-fire agreement, February was to have been when Liberians voted to elect a new government. But as the month opened, the parties to the accord -- the interim government, the NPFL and ULIMO -- weren't speaking to each other.

Only after the United Nations and United States, which has contributed $29 million to the peace effort, applied pressure did the three sides agree to a timetable that schedules the long-awaited election Sept. 7.

"We told the Liberian parties that if they screw this one up they might not have as many layers of attention and protection," said William Twadell, U.S. ambassador to Liberia. "Some of them may find that heartening -- they can go back to killing. But I think some are getting the message that this sort of jockeying and palavering has to end."

About 13,000 ECOMOG troops, watched by 360 U.N. observers, have started disarming an undetermined number of fighters -- Mr. Twadell estimates as few as 20,000, while the United Nations estimates as many as 60,000.

Those numbers represent not only the NPFL and ULIMO, but the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Mr. Doe's army, and the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), formed since the cease-fire largely by fighters from the AFL. Many believe ECOMOG has supported the LPC to maintain pressure on Mr. Taylor.

Fighters will be offered rice and civilian clothes in return for their guns at encampment sites. There are long-term plans to resettle them and readjust them to civilian life.

"It will be hard for a man who has come from a hut to a nice house with air conditioning in the city to go back," said Joe Gardiner, who works for ELRL, a radio station in the NPFL capital of Gbarnga. "We have to create room for rehabilitation."

Liberians describe soldiers on all sides as thugs who commonly switch sides and fight more against civilians than each other.

"They say they don't take pay, so they have to pay themselves," said Jonathan Zonoe, a refugee. He arrived in the port of Buchanan in early February after fleeing fighting between the NPFL and LPC, also known as Last Property Collectors.

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