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.
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.
When the latest fighting broke out here, Comfort Zerzay could not run far. She hid in the woods nearby with her elderly parents, while her husband fled with their son. A midwife by training, Zerzay returned when LURD boys showed her the way to the clinic.
"I didn't have a choice," she said. "You have to work to save your life."
On the day of the visit, the fighters were apparently under orders to put away their weapons, but no one had bothered to keep the child soldiers away from view.
One boy, who looked barely 10, wearing a brown T-shirt that hung past his knees, explained in broken English that he was brought here after being injured in the war. On Saturday, he hobbled behind the visitors on his crutches, once gingerly approaching to shake Sheriff's hand.
Neither guests nor hosts mentioned the unsavory history between LURD fighters and UN workers. But in their messages of good will and cooperation lay hints that neither side could afford a replay of the past.
"Those that came to help us, those are dignitaries you are seeing here," Sheriff told his men. "Whether they come by road or they come by air they are welcome."
The first truckloads of medicines could begin to come here within a week, UN officials say.
By the end of the day, LURD officials had offered a battered house for the UN to set up its operations.
The town's commanding officer rode up on a scraggly white horse. "Please tell your people," urged Omar Khatib, the country representative for the WHO, "don't spoil things beyond what's been spoiled."
Then, the UN team climbed aboard the helicopter bound for Monrovia. Voinjama falls under the strictest UN security guidelines. No one is allowed to spend the night here.
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