Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Lack of food subdues the joy of peace

PRIORITIES A deal ending the civil war in Liberia has done nothing to ease the immediate problems of starvation facing many in the nation's countryside

AP , FENDELL, LIBERIA

A government soldier waits on his pickup truck adorned with charms before going to the frontline at Kandakar, about 150km from Monrovia, Liberia, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Donweh Bar props up her skeletal frame, wizened beyond her 48 years, with spindly arms wrapped around a twisted cane. Nearby a toddler with protruding belly and ribs eats a few grains of corn meal from her mother's hand.

Despite a peace deal signed Monday formally ending Liberia's brutal civil war, hundreds of thousand of people -- many nearly starving -- are awaiting food aid before they celebrate. While 60 tonnes of food have been delivered by UN groups since West African peacekeepers and US Marines secured the capital's port last week, aid officials concede it is still far too little.

Bar sleeps on a grass mat elbow to elbow with several thousand other refugees jammed in classrooms of an abandoned campus building of the University of Liberia at Fendell, some 14km east of the capital Monrovia.

She cannot remember when she last ate wild leaves and tubers, among the only food. "Two days," she said weakly. "No, maybe two weeks."

Another woman, Esther Lorla, fed her wide-eyed, skinny-legged baby girl a few grains of corn meal from her hand, given by a stranger after both went three days without eating.

The hunger peaked during weeks of sieges by rebels on the capital of Monrovia last month and early this month. Hundreds of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands left on the verge of starvation.

West African troops that began deploying two weeks ago have held a two-week-old ceasefire, allowing a few ship- and planeloads of food aid to flow into the city again.

But in the countryside where undisciplined fighters still hold sway, hundreds of thousands of civilians languish without nourishment -- many of them weak from fleeing fighting numerous times in recent months.

Many Liberians have pinned their hopes on the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force and on a lasting US military presence. US President George W. Bush, however, announced Monday that US forces would leave the country by October. Fewer than 200 US Marines are now on the ground.

Negotiators signed an accord Monday in Accra, Ghana, that keeps warring parties out of the interim government's top posts, but allows them to choose the politicians and civic members who will fill them.

The accord follows President Charles Taylor's resignation and departure into exile last week.

Elections are to follow in two years for the country, which was Africa's first republic, founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.

Few of the displaced residents of Fendell camp expressed interest in news of the peace document.

"We are hungry. We want food," said Saylee Jarbateh, a 52-year-old mother of five who fled her Monrovia home with her children in June during the first of the sieges in the city. "Without food, how can we have peace? How can we go home?"

Aid efforts by "heroic" relief workers traveling in convoys into the interior have so far been hampered by government and rebel fighters who hold sway in the countryside, targeting the aid groups' food and medicines to sell for profit or weapons, said Jacques Klein, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Liberia special representative.

Yuktar Farah, an official with the UN agency coordinating the international relief effort, described Liberia's food crisis as among the world's most severe in the past decade -- worse than other humanitarian disasters he had witnessed in 1990s Rwanda, Angola and Eritrea.

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