Gunmen are a mystery in Liberia's war

© The Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) - As dusk settled over the crossroads town of Klay Junction, thousands of refugees were gathered around open fires for their evening meal, when a burst of gunfire sparked a panicked stampede into the bush.

Two weeks later, frightened and exhausted families are still straggling into the capital, Monrovia, with bundles of clothes, rolled up mattresses and cooking pots balanced on their heads. But the identity and motives of the attackers, who have been spreading fear through the Liberian countryside for more than two years, remain a mystery.
Some blame former fighters from the myriad factions that waged a savage 1989-96 civil war, reducing almost every city and town to rubble. Others blame unruly government soldiers bent on looting. Some even suspect the government of staging a conflict for its own political ends. Whatever the truth, tens of thousands of people in this country founded by freed American slaves are being chased from their homes -- many of them time and time again.
Stephen Saah and his family had already fled three attacks in just two months when he said gunmen caught up with them at Klay Junction, where more than 10,000 people had gathered after fleeing fighting farther north. Abandoned pots full of food still stand there among the scattered clothes, shoes and other belongings left behind in the panic. Now sheltering 23 miles to the south at a camp in Monrovia originally for refugees from Sierra Leone's civil war, Saah has no idea who his pursuers are. "We don't carry guns. When we hear gunfire, we can't stand there and wait to see the person who is firing," he said, sitting on a bucket, weaving pieces of thatch through wooden stakes to build a shelter for his wife and six children.
Fighting had long been concentrated in Lofa County, near Liberia's northern border with Guinea. But since December, the raids have moved south through Gbarpolu, Bomi and Bong counties, seemingly following the displaced as they stream toward the capital. U.N. officials believe the refugees are being deliberately targeted -- by whom and for what reason remain unclear.
When James Sackie reached Monrovia with his wife and three children, the family from the northwestern town of Tubmanburg was left with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Staying at one of two makeshift camps in the city, they sleep with hundreds of others on the floor of a burned-out building once owned by Voice of America. "If I wash my clothes now, I will be naked," Sackie said, peering ruefully at his once-white shirt and trousers, now a dusty orange from the road. "I am tired now of running. Every five minutes, it's just war, war, war."

Fed up, thousands of Liberians are crossing into Sierra Leone with refugees from that country who have been returning home since the war there was officially declared over last month.
"I am tired of living under guns," said Darlington Paul, sweat streaming down his face as he staggered into the northwestern town of Sinje after walking two days with his belongings balanced on his head. "I see another war coming now ... so I have to leave." Like most refugees, he says he has never seen those doing the shooting. The few who have say it is impossible to tell soldiers and rebels apart -- they all dress in a mix of jeans, T-shirts and military fatigues.

Two years into the insurrection, no leader has emerged, though a number of people have claimed to speak for the rebels -- always from outside the country.

As fighting draws nearer to the capital, panic is spreading in a city only just starting to paint over the bullet-pocked walls from the last war, which killed more than 150,000 people and forced 2.6 million from their homes. Since the attack at Klay Junction, heavy gunfire has broken out at Heindi and Bong Mines -- both within 20 miles of Monrovia. Truckloads of soldiers bristling with automatic rifles and grenade launchers race every day to the front. Civilians line up at banks to withdraw their savings. Those who can afford the fare, crowd into buses and shared taxis heading to Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Warning against an "impending crisis of cataclysmic proportions," President Charles Taylor has declared a state of emergency and started rounding up suspected dissidents. Most are released within days. The former warlord blames a shadowy rebel movement said to include some of his rivals from the civil war and accuses Guinea of supporting the insurgents.
Guinea denies the charge and accuses Liberia of backing its own dissidents, as well as Sierra Leone's feared rebels who have also raided Guinean villages.

Western diplomats believe Taylor is exaggerating the threat to win the lifting of a U.N. arms embargo -- part of a series of sanctions imposed to punish his government for gun- and diamond-running with the Sierra Leonean rebels. Diplomats and humanitarian workers say the Liberian rebels are few, attacking towns over a wide area but rarely taking them over. They believe the disruption is magnified by ethnic clashes, as well as the government's own often unpaid soldiers, who stage attacks so they can loot.
In the capital, a growing number accuse Taylor of masterminding the conflict to give him an excuse to cancel elections scheduled for next year.

Frustration has been mounting in Monrovia as the years pass with few improvements. Electricity and water are luxuries, unemployment hovers around 75 percent, and many still live in the shells of blown-out buildings from the last war.
The refugees reaching the city only worry about finding peace.
"I am asking almighty God that the running should stop now," said Moses Keymah, a farmer from Lofa who came to Monrovia after a year on the run. "We are tired."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

February 24, 2002 Posted: 5:24 PM EST (2224 GMT)

© Robert W. Kranz  09-02-2002