Liberian Violence Continues Despite Peace
TOTOTA, Liberia (AP) _ Liberia’s civil war is officially over, but outside the capital, it doesn’t look much like peace: Rebels are looting, pro-government militias are raping, and civilians are being forced to till fields to feed hungry fighters, residents say.
Despite an August peace deal and an expanding peacekeeping mission slated to become the United Nations’ largest, hundreds of thousands of civilians are still holed up in displaced camps afraid to return home.
``If you venture into places that are not under United Nations peacekeepers, you do so at your own risk,″ said 37-year-old Pastor Aaron Sao, who fled the central village of Gbarnga in August during battles between rebels and pro-government forces.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, now numbering 4,500 troops, is expected to grow to 15,000 over the next few months. So far only a few hundred soldiers have been deployed to key trouble-spots outside the capital, Monrovia.
Rebel and government forces signed a peace deal Aug. 18 ending three years of bloody war _ a week after warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor departed for exile in Nigeria.
Monrovia businessman Gyude Bryant took over a transitional administration Oct. 14 that’s expected to arrange elections in late 2005. But for now, the rest of Liberia remains effectively lawless _ in the hands of rampaging rebels and militiamen who supported Taylor’s ousted government.
``We need food, but what we need most is security to enable us to return home,″ Sao said, showing a team of reporters around Totota on Tuesday.
The government estimates some 1 million Liberians have been displaced by the war, which began in 1999 when rebels took up arms against Taylor. Around 250,000 people are living in makeshift camps; the rest are living with friends, relatives _ or anyone who will give them shelter.
In Gbarnga, 100 miles northeast of the capital, rebels have carried out massive looting sprees, stealing roofs and doors from houses and buildings, residents say.
Eric Quellemi, living in a displaced camp to the southwest in Salala, recently made a brief trip back to Gbarnga to check on his home. Little was left.
``The rebels think harassing civilians is not enough. They have launched an attack on buildings that survived the war,″ the 35-year-old said.
Sao said the rebels, from the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, had grabbed men in Gbarnga and made them ``tow loads for rebel commanders.″
One rebel official in the area, Mohammed Farbeh, denied the reports.
``Those who are afraid of us should ignore the rumors of harassment and try us by returning home,″ Farbeh said. ``They will see how we care for people.″
In Sanoyea, another town southwest of Gbarnga, hungry militiamen and soldiers once loyal to Taylor have forced local farmers to work their own fields to feed them, witnesses said.
``The fighters have got no food for themselves, they’re not being fed by the government, so they turn to civilians for what they need,″ said Karbel Larkey, 38, now living at a camp in Totota.
``My family and I left because people are being beaten, made to harvest their own rice farms for fighters,″ he said. ``Wives and daughters are raped before their family members openly by the fighters.″
Displaced Liberians living in camps in Totota said they regularly leave to work on nearby farms they consider safe _ rather than their own. One of them, 20-year-old Mulbah Flomo, was returning to Totota with a bundle of rice on his shoulder.
``Gunmen are in full control of those places,″ he said, referring to rebels in Gbarnga. ``So what we do is work on the farms of people in the region to be compensated in food.″
In Liberia, such stories aren’t new.
Countless people were displaced during a 1989-1996 civil war that began with a Taylor-led insurgency. Taylor was elected president by a war-weary populace in 1997, and rebels took up arms against him two years later, laying siege to the capital in June. Over 1,000 civilians died in two and a half months of fighting that followed.
Monrovia is now calm, but tense as armed peacekeeping soldiers patrol streets and man roadblocks.
Troops from Guinea-Bissau deployed in Totota in September, marking the peace force’s first major push into the countryside. They stopped two miles outside the town, however.
On Wednesday, the commander of U.N. forces in Liberia, Kenyan Gen. Daniel Opande, told The Associated Press he’d heard the allegations of rape, forced labor and looting, but could not confirm them.
``We’ve heard similar stories before, but we have no confirmation yet because nobody has given us evidence.″
As far as deploying more troops into the interior, Opande said it wasn’t likely to happen soon.
``We are stretched to the limit,″ Opande said.