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Public Services, Security Still Lacking in Liberia Despite End of Civil War - 2004-03-11

As peace in Liberia is slowly being consolidated after 14 years of civil war, many Liberians are now increasingly frustrated at the continued lack of public services and security.

With international peacekeepers deployed in Monrovia since August, it seems everybody is trying to get back to work, and that includes children.

Former child soldiers tinker with destroyed car parts to make household goods, while naked children nearby wash carpets. Others, fully clothed, hawk everything from single sticks of chewing gum to used gangster-chic clothing.

Some shops, gas stations and hotels have reopened. Most of them are owned by Lebanese businessmen who paid off fighters to avoid being looted during the war. Hospitals are also resuming services.

There is a festive mood in Monrovia. Many people greet each other joyously. And music is played on street corners.

But life is not easy. Many buildings where employees are returning to work are completely run down. There is still no electricity or running water, and there are very few working telephone lines.

Worse, says George Kingsley, who helps coordinate the activities of aid groups in Liberia, there is almost no public transportation.

"Transport has been a problem here because, right now most of the inhabitants do get to work very late because transport facilities are very low," he explains. "For most of the people here I think transport is one of the major factors that is delaying them. It's hectic, however, it's hectic, but we believe that the transitional government will do all in her power to see that is restored back to normalcy."

Mr. Kingsley is also trying to get canvas tarps for schools. Many schools had their roofs torn off during the war, so now they have to cancel classes when it rains.

The difficulty for the government in providing basic services is made worse by Monrovia's growing population of peacekeepers, aid workers and hundreds of thousands of displaced Liberians.

One of them is David Johnson, a nighttime security guard who was previously a medical worker in southeastern Sinoe County. He wants to return home. But he says he will wait for the complete disarmament of former fighters by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNMIL.

"Some of us want to go, we are waiting to go back, but the area is not safe for us. How do we go back? So we want to appeal to the UNMIL to at least deploy all their men in various counties outside Monrovia," he says.

The disarmament process started briefly in parts of Monrovia last year, but has been delayed, so security remains a widespread problem.

In Liberia's second largest city, Buchanan, former rebels from the group MODEL, including Ivorian mercenaries, roam the streets, wearing bandannas, showing off bulging muscles and acting like they own the city, even though during the day, they don't carry their weapons.

One of them, who says he will only go by the name Iron Jacket until disarmament is complete, admits there is some looting going on at night, but he accuses other former fighting factions.

"They are not people that come with us. They are people from militias," he explains. "So for MODEL we are not harassing, we are not looting, we don't spoil people's things. We don't attack anybody. We are only awaiting for disarmament to give our arms and go and also we are asking the UNMIL to make it fast because people are spoiling our records. Different people from different factions they are spoiling our records. So let us make this fast so we can disarm and go back to our jobs and we can sit down."

In other more remote parts of Liberia, such as Barclayville, farther east, residents complain of constant harassment by former rebels.

Subsistence farmer Joe Daniel says he is eagerly awaiting the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in his area to stop the armed groups.

"They are human beings like us but once they have their arms, we are suffering, they are taking us like slaves for them," he says. " They could enter in your house and tell you 'Look, give me this thing here, I want it.' And you've got to do it because he has arms. And there is no authority against them. They are their own law, no authority."

Mr. Daniel also wants the United Nations to build roads and help get the economy in his area moving again. But the head of the U.N. mission in Liberia, Jacques Klein, says his mandate is restricted to ensuring full disarmament, and free and fair elections next year.

He says reconstruction is being handled by the transitional government and independent aid workers.

"Liberia is destroyed, I mean that's nothing the U.N. can do much about, that's not my portfolio," he says. "My mandate is a secure, a safe environment, allowing the humanitarian organizations to do their work. We're hoping now with this donors conference and the money that was raised that the process of national reconstruction - electrical grid, clearing the sunken ships out of the harbor, educational system, health care system - all of that can be done."

Mr. Klein is also appealing to the thousands of affluent Liberians who have emigrated to the United States to return to their country to help, even if it's just for a few months. He says investment from those people, and others, is the only way to launch Liberia into a more modern and prosperous future.