THE PLEADING EYES OF A DYING YOUTH, HIS face charred from being burnt inside a plastic bag; prisoners forced to walk barefoot over broken bottles; drug-addicted child soldiers eating the hearts of their victims. These are just some of the harrowing images of the last decade of conflict in West Africa.
It was hoped that such brutality would be consigned to history in May 2001, when the UN took steps to end the trade in `conflict diamonds', starving the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of its revenue flow and so helping to bring peace to Sierra Leone. Yet in Liberia conflict rumbles on, the government's Armed Terrorist Unit (ATU) continues to terrorise its people, and arms traders still find that business is booming. It seems that a different natural resource is funding the bloodshed. `Conflict timber' is the new currency of chaos in West Africa today.
In recent months Liberia has been devastated by escalating hostilities between the government and the rebel group Liberians United for the Return of Democracy (LURD). Forced conscription, looting, torture and rape have become daily, government backed realities. In February 2002 an alleged dissident collaborator told Amnesty International how his scrotum was hammered flat by a member of the ATU; and how a 14-year-old girl was held for six days by ATU members, "during which time all seven repeatedly gang-raped her".
Horrific as they are, such stories are far from exceptional, mere details on a canvas of suffering endured by the Liberian people, suffering that many believe is being paid for by the Liberian timber industry.
The evidence for this is compelling, so much so that, in December 2000 and October 2001, two separate UN panels of experts recommended a UN embargo on Liberian round log exports. Despite the backing of many member states, including the UK, these attempts to clean up the trade have been blocked by the world's largest importers of …