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War Weary Liberians Await Food, Humanitarian Aid - 2003-08-09

The presence of West African peacekeepers in the Liberian capital, Monrovia is expected to give humanitarian aid groups a chance to bring food and medicine into the war-weary city. But ongoing political wrangling in Liberia may delay aid from reaching hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

On the morning of July 19, Eric Tornor was awakened by a mortar round exploding in front of his home in the government-held area of Monrovia.

Outside, he found two of his neighbors dead and five others bleeding and dying. Badly shaken, Mr. Tornor grabbed his wife and four children and ran for the Greystone compound, a camp for displaced refugees across the street from the U.S. Embassy.

He has been at Greystone ever since, living on handouts.

RYU: Do you know if your home is still standing?

TORNOR: My house, I just visited this morning and the whole place was looted. It was looted. So, I came back with empty hands.

RYU: Nothing left?

TORNOR: No, nothing. Nothing.

Eric Tornor's story is similar to those of the more than 10,000 people at Greystone, huddled beneath plastic sheeting and makeshift tents.

Many arrived here shortly after fresh fighting between government and rebel forces broke out in June. Thousands more came last month when the rebels began a series of bloody offensives to capture Monrovia. The violence in the past two months is estimated to have killed nearly 2,000 people.

Aggrey Bategereza, a doctor at Greystone working with the French aid agency, Medicins Sans Frontier, says the fighting has shut off the flow of food from the port of Monrovia, which is now under rebel control. He says if the food blockade persists much longer, malnutrition could become rampant in government-held areas of the city.

The main problem is the food. There hasn't been any food supply and that's the real main problem," he explained.

With guns falling mainly silent with the arrival of West African peacekeepers earlier this week, displaced refugees from Greystone and other camps around the area have been spending most time this week searching for food.

Once crowded markets have little for sale, except handfuls of chili peppers and potato greens. Rice, which once sold for less than 30 U.S. cents for two cups, is now more than $4 a cup, if it can be found at all.

Hundreds of hungry people stand in front of a bridge that divides the government-held territory from the rebel side. They demand to be let across to the port where they had heard food was available.

Across the bridge, there is plenty to eat. Such things as canned meat, sodas and spaghetti, all shipped in to the port, are in abundant supply.

But what the rebel side does not have is a sufficient supply of drugs and doctors because most international aid agencies are located in the government-held central district.

On Friday, the International Red Cross and other aid agencies delivered several car loads of medicine and were able to visit a field hospital which has not been accessible for over two weeks. But aid workers say they remain concerned that many others are not getting the help they need.

Liberians wildly cheered Thursday's arrival of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeepers in the government-held side of the capital because, among other things, the peacekeeping force is expected to take control of the port and open up a humanitarian corridor.

But rebel leaders say they will not hand over the territory to peacekeepers until Liberian President Charles Taylor leaves the country and a new leader, who is not associated with Mr. Taylor, is elected.

Mr. Taylor has vowed to step down on Monday and hand over power to his vice president, whom the rebels have already rejected. The Liberian leader has not said when he will leave the country.

Back at the Greystone compound, Eric Tornor says unless the situation improves, he may not be able to feed his children much longer.

"We don't have any money now to buy. So, see the children here? There is no money to buy. So, they are crying on me. I don't know how I will manage," he said.

At ports in neighboring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, aid workers are asking for patience. They say they have loaded ships with supplies and staff, ready to return to Monrovia and resume operations as soon as they can do so safely.