Liberia's unusual war

By Mark Doyle, BBC West Africa correspondent

Liberian soldier
Liberia - an American flavour in West Africa
It's an old joke in West Africa that as you travel around the region you can see the effects of colonialism at your breakfast table.

In former French colonies you're served croissants and decent coffee. In the former British colonies, it's toast and marmalade.

In Liberia, uniquely in Africa, it's waffles with maple syrup.

The American-style breakfast is a legacy of Liberia's unique position on the continent as the only country settled - some say colonised - in the 19th century by freed slaves from the United States.

Step out of the hotel dining room and there are other reminders of the US that those freed slaves hung onto when they settled here.

The flag that flutters over government buildings is a miniature Stars and Stripes. In fact it is a single blue star and half a dozen red stripes. And Liberians speak with a languid, American-style Deep South drawl.

Like the United States, Liberia has its Capitol Building. Its smaller than the one in Washington DC, of course. But it's still got a dome and red carpets.

Another 'war on 'terror'

When the Liberian President, Charles Taylor, made a speech there the other day, a brass band heralded his arrival and he was flanked by secret service agents in Ray Ban shades.

Refugee camp
Rightly, the refugees flee first and ask questions later
"We are a country at war," said the president gravely. I lost count of the number of times he used the T-word, but he left no doubt that, like President Bush, he sees his opponents as terrorists.

But 100 miles outside the capital, at a roadblock in the jungle, the comparison with the United States wears a little thin.

The man waving a Kalashnikov at the windscreen of my car did say "Good morning" in the polite American manner.

But the soldier was also wearing a full-length, floral-pattern bathrobe at the time, which rather shattered the Stateside impression.

The further you venture outside the capital, the less uniform the soldiers wear. They also often add unconventional items of clothing they have picked up along the way.

Refugees' plight

Liberia is unique. But if it is a colourful country, what is taking place there is certainly no joke. It's deadly serious.

Around 60,000 people have been made homeless by a new war which has intensified in recent months.

Sixty thousand is a huge number for a small country like Liberia. By comparison, it's as if the entire population of the English city of Birmingham were scattered destitute over southern England, trying to escape to France.

Among them is a young mother called Cecelia. I met her trying to care for her two toddlers in a filthy abandoned school building just outside Monrovia.

She had for the past year been pushed by military unrest from one part of Liberia to another, running terrified from the sound of gunfire.

Cecelia was heavily pregnant with her third child, long overdue.

The day after I met her, her baby died.

The Lurd's mysterious ways

The government says it is under attack by rebels backed by neighbouring Guinea.

This is true, up to a point. The rebels, who operate under the ugly acronym Lurd, or Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy - have been fighting government forces in towns near the Guinea border for about a year now.

Liberian President Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor is a former warlord voted to power in 1997
But in recent weeks the government says the Lurd have attacked much nearer the capital - on one occasion at a key road junction just half an hour's drive outside the city limits.

A few days after this incident at the junction, empty ammunition casings littered the ground, burnt-out cars with bullet holes were slewed across the road, and a dead body was in nearby bushes.

And yet, if you talk to opponents of the government, they say they are not sure who the Lurd are.

They even suggest that President Taylor has a Machiavellian plan to create a false impression of being under serious attack.

Land of surprises

This extraordinary idea rests on the thesis that the Liberian leadership, which is under United Nations sanctions because of gun running and diamond smuggling, is playing up its troubles to garner international sympathy and get the sanctions lifted.

President Taylor's men say this suggestion is absurd.

But - astonishingly - some diplomats and UN officials in this region (speaking of course under cover of anonymity) give the theory some credence.

Personally, I'm not sure what to think. The more I learn about Liberia the less I understand.

There is a real rebellion. But the scale of it is uncertain, and Mr Taylor may well perceive an interest in exaggerating the rebel advances.

I wouldn't be surprised if we soon heard claims that the rebels have entered the capital. On the other hand, I also wouldn't be surprised if we never heard of the Lurd again.

Cecelia and the other 60,000 displaced Liberians don't know who is firing the guns that make them flee. Very sensibly, they run first and ask questions later.

Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 13:06 GMT

© Robert W. Kranz  25-02-2002