There was a lull in the fighting in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, on Thursday, enabling residents of the besieged city to go out and look for food and other supplies. But the situation remains difficult, as Liberians wait for a promised West African peacekeeping force. Reporter Nicole Itano is in Monrovia, and she described the situation to VOA's Al Pessin in London.
Pessin: Nicole, I know you just arrived in Monrovia just a short time ago but can you describe the scene for us?
Itano: Well, today there were people out on the streets for what, I'm told, is the first time in a week. In fact there were hundreds, even thousands of people out looking for food, trying to get clean water. It's the first access they've had, for many of them, outside of their homes and the schools and other buildings where they've taken refuge for the past week during the fighting. There was some fighting today around key bridges but not as much as we've seen in past days. There haven't been any mortar attacks which has been keeping many people indoors for the past few days. So, people have been taking advantage of this opportunity to try to stock up on the things that they haven't had in the past few days.
Pessin: We've heard reports of the city being crowded with tens of thousands of refugees and real serious shortages of drinking water and food. Did you see evidence of that today?
Itano: Yes, I'm standing right now in the Samuel Doe stadium where more than 60,000 people have taken refuge since the stadium opened in June to take refugees in. And, even today, I've been told, new people have been arriving. They've been taking advantage of the fact that things were a bit calmer to try to come to the relative safety of this stadium. So, yes, there are still thousands and thousands of police people all around the city.
Pessin: Can you describe the situation at the stadium?
Itano: The situation in the stadium is very crowded there are shortages of water and food. As you walk around people keep coming up to you saying I haven't eaten in days. Even people who have been registered haven't had access to food distributions because the humanitarian organization that are working here have not been able to get access to many of the areas that refugees are in. So, people are really scrounging with whatever money they have, trying to buy handfuls of rice and cornmeal. But the prices are very, very high. I was told that a cup of rice costs a hundred Liberian dollars which is more than one U.S. dollar. Which, for many of these people is a small fortune.
Pessin: And, at the stadium, are people living out in the open in the stands, or underneath the stands, or how is it arranged?
Itano: Well, most people are taking refuge inside the stadium, underneath the actual seating. But, the conditions are horrible. There is a strong smell of urine and feces. There are no lights at all. You have hundreds and hundreds of people crammed together with whole families living in a few square feet of space. They have been forced to live inside for the most part because it has been raining here for the past few days.
Pessin: You mentioned relief workers. We had heard that many if not all had left during the recent fighting, but apparently some are still there from what you are saying.
Itano: Most of the international expatriate relief workers have left. There are a few organizations like Medecins sans frontieres and Merlin who do still have expatriate staff here, but most groups have pulled out their expatriate staff as has the U.N. But, there are a lot of Liberians who are still working for these organizations, for the United Nations organizations like the World Food Program, UNICEF, and for international organizations like Oxfam and for local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like Smile Africa International. So, there are still people on the ground who are trying to do what they can but under very, very difficult situations.
Pessin: And, do they have any material to distribute - any food, water, medicine?
Itano: They do have some. They are not enough to deal with the scope of the situation and they don't' have enough to last for very long. So, if the situation does deteriorate again, which unfortunately many here think will happen again in the next few days, then the situation again will become very desperate.
Pessin: Nicole, there was a team from ECOWAS, the West African organization, that arrived today along with an American advisor or two to look at the situation to prepare for the arrival of the peacekeeping troops, which we are now told could be on Monday. Did you see the team at all or any of the reaction to the team?
Itano: I have. I haven't had a chance to talk with them in any great detail but I did see them driving through the city today trying to get a sense of what the situation is. My understanding was that earlier today that had not yet made close contact with the rebel group so they had been talking to people on the government side, and, also of course, talking to humanitarian workers and some ordinary Liberians to try to get a sense of what the situation was.
Pessin: All right, Nicole, thank you very much for that report from Liberia. That was reporter Nicole Itano in Monrovia, and I'm Al Pessin, VOA News, in London.