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Reopened Bridge Unites Sierra Leoneans, Liberians

Residents in the region along the Sierra Leone-Liberian border say the reopening of a bridge connecting the two countries has brought increased trade as people cross to buy and sell goods. During recent civil wars, the bridge served as a transit point for rebels and their weapons. Now people say they hope it will bring improved relations between the two countries. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, with additional reporting by Prince Collins.

The Mano River Bridge was once a vital pathway, commercially linking the Sierra Leone capital Freetown with Liberia's capital Monrovia. But in the1990s, as war broke out, the bridge was used by rebels and became too dangerous for civilians.

Its reopening is mostly a symbolic move, reflecting improved relations between Liberia and Sierra Leone, strained during the wars.

Sierra Leonean trader Hawa Fomba says she crosses the bridge each day with her goods hoping that sales will be better on the other side and she will be able to buy food for her children.

"The business we are doing here is very difficult, all over the country, not only Sierra Leone, but also Liberia," she said. "We are trying our level best to survive. Sometimes we lose and sometimes we gain."

Liberian health worker James Kumakai says many Sierra Leoneans are crossing into Liberia to buy medicines that are unavailable on their side of the border. He says this has caused shortages.

"[There are] no drugs around the border," he noted. "They are bringing patients in, but most of the essential drugs are not there, the antibiotics and most of the essential drugs are not there. No antimalarial drugs. So people are coming in to come for treatment."

Liberian Hassan Passaway was a child soldier. He says some former child soldiers like himself earn money by pushing wheelbarrows piled with goods across the bridge destined for vendors on the other side. He says many former child soldiers have not found work.

"We do not have any job," he said. "We do not have anything to do. Even people building a house and working on that, we do not have that here."

The Mano River basin along the border of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has long been lawless and tense during regional conflicts.

Many hope the reopened border crossing will build trust between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Passaway says it is working. He says he and other former combatants from both sides have been using the bridge to cross over and play soccer with each other.

"We call the guys in from there, and they come for us to have friendly matches," he noted. "We have everything in common with them."

The governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone say they hope improved trade will increase revenue and improve living standards for the two nations, but they say security in the area will be tightened to ensure the bridge does not again become a tool for destabilizing the region.