Tue, Oct 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Devastated town shows long road ahead for Liberia

REBUILDING The first outsiders to visit the rebel outpost of Voinjama in years were shocked to find the carcass of a once bustling provincial town

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VOINJAMA, LIBERIA

For the first time since their colleagues were held hostage by rebels here four years ago, UN workers returned on Saturday to this northern frontier town, where Liberia's latest guerrilla war began.

They saw a carcass of a once bustling provincial town. Bedrag-gled boy soldiers dragged along the dirt roads on crutches. A hospital, built by Western aid money, had been emptied. In front of what people here called a clinic sat a row of wounded rebel fighters: a boy whose right eye had been shut by a bullet, another nearly deaf from being around artillery for too long, several with bandaged arms and legs.

Most seemed high as kites, and one did not know the full name of the rebel faction for which he had fought: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known here simply as LURD, one of the three factions that make up the new unity government.

"War finished, war finished, white man here," a barefoot beanpole of a soldier yelled gleefully as a UN assessment team stepped off a helicopter, escorted by Seyeh Sheriff, the gaunt red-bereted rebel commander.

For good reason: LURD fighters held UN workers hostage in April 1999 as they stormed into Voinjama with an eye to ousting their nemesis, then-president Charles Taylor.

For the next four years, the rebels punched through the countryside and finally, into the capital, Monrovia. Taylor, weakened by an international arms embargo, stepped down and left the country in August, paving the way for the provisional government and a UN peacekeeping force. Voinjama served as a LURD base for much of the fighting; it is situated near the border with Guinea, the rebels' principal patron and a US ally.

Homecoming

Offering outsiders the first look in years at this rebel outpost, the visit by the UN humanitarian assessment team was a strategic homecoming with much at stake for both sides.

For rebel leaders, a relief convoy stands to strengthen their popularity among civilians. For the UN, it represents a chance to buy peace with medicine and potable water, long before UN troops are ready to do it by force. It will take at least until next March for all 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops to be stationed in Liberia.

Voinjama is a portrait of how much needs to happen before life in this country can return to a measure of normality.

Its red-dirt main street has been so washed away by rains that residents can no longer climb the steps of the gutted storefronts. Nature has reasserted control. Jungles sprout from inside the hollowed houses. Tin roofs are gone.

It is hard to tell from this ruin, but rebel leaders have apparently put in some effort to reconstruct this town. Civilians living in nearby villages and towns, or just hiding in the forests, said they had been driven into Voinjama over the last 18 months to put the place back together again, ordered to start cutting the tall grass and opening up the road.

Vital personnel were recruited: a Pentecostal preacher, a schoolteacher, a midwife.

"They came and captured me, let's put it that way," said Alexander Baysah, 40, an English teacher who now serves as the vice principal of a makeshift school here.

"A civilian man is subject to what an armed man tells you. We were asked to open a school by the authorities in LURD. I did not have an option at the time," he said.

Baysah said he had run away to his village, about two hours from here by foot, when LURD men ordered him to return to town 16 months ago. He pointed out that LURD fighters, in general, had a better record with civilians than their predecessors; Voinjama has been ruled by four successive armed groups over the last 14 years.

This story has been viewed 4517 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top