Q&A: The Liberian Conflict ; Michael Peel Is a Freelance Journalist Based in Lagos, Nigeria. He Recently Traveled in Liberia. Mr. Peel Discussed the Recent Fighting in Monrovia with Csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga

The Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Q&A: The Liberian Conflict ; Michael Peel Is a Freelance Journalist Based in Lagos, Nigeria. He Recently Traveled in Liberia. Mr. Peel Discussed the Recent Fighting in Monrovia with Csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga


Given the chaos from fighting in Liberia, how compromised are international aid workers? How effective can they be in providing emergency relief?

Aid workers say the fighting is an enormous obstacle to their efforts to provide humanitarian relief. I spoke on Monday to Dominique Liengme, head of the delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was trapped in the US embassy because of mortar fire landing in the surrounding Mamba Point diplomatic area. Ms. Liengme said she counted 25 explosions in the space of a few hours. "We were just about to leave when the explosions started," she said, speaking by telephone from the embassy. "Since then we couldn't leave."

Some aid workers have been evacuated this week by helicopter from the US embassy. Oxfam, the British-based aid organization, said on Tuesday that it was "too dangerous for most aid workers to continue their work."

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the medical aid agency, said on Wednesday that it was having "pretty severe problems as far as being able to operate the few programs we have been able to continue". It has been forced by the fighting to set up two hospitals in its former residential compounds. It treated 155 wounded people on Monday and saw 13 dead bodies, while its chief surgeon performed operations until four o'clock the following morning.

MSF has been forced by the fighting to shut down clinics it ran in three camps for internally displaced people to the north of the center of Monrovia. MSF says it is now treating a few hundred cases of cholera each week, a reflection of the crowded and unsanitary conditions in Monrovia.

"The real difficulty is that, with all the shooting continuing, it's very, very difficult for the wounded people to make it to our hospitals," said Kris Torgeson, MSF communications director. "There are very, very few other facilities open for people to be treated."

Ms. Torgeson says a Liberian MSF staff member was killed over the weekend in Monrovia when he went home to collect his family. "His house was hit by a mortar," she says. "That's an indication of how things are."

Liberians in the street are blaming the US for not sending military forces. Can you explain why Liberians look to the US in this crisis and would be disillusioned if America didn't send troops?

One reason is Liberia's history. The modern state was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves and ruled by an elite of US descent for more than 125 years. A second reason is that the US had strategic cold war links with Liberia, which was seen as an important anti-Communist outpost in Africa. The US gave hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the brutal regime of Samuel Doe, who met President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

The US embassy is by far the largest foreign diplomatic presence in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, while billboards around the city juxtapose the colors of the Liberian and US flags alongside slogans such as: "For peace and harmony". Many Liberians see the lack of US action as a betrayal of that relationship.

Is there any sanctuary where civilians and non-combatants can take refuge?

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Q&A: The Liberian Conflict ; Michael Peel Is a Freelance Journalist Based in Lagos, Nigeria. He Recently Traveled in Liberia. Mr. Peel Discussed the Recent Fighting in Monrovia with Csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga
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