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UN 'Sensitization Campaigns' Prepare Liberians, Former Fighters for Peacekeepers' Arrival - 2004-03-13


The U.N. mission in Liberia has been carrying out what are called sensitization campaigns in remote areas to prepare civilians and former fighters for the deployment of peacekeepers and the disarmament of former fighters. VOA's Nico Colombant recently traveled with a group of U.N. officials and soldiers to the remote eastern town of Barclayville.

As the second of two U.N. helicopters landed on a soccer field outside the small farming town of Barclayville, nearly 1,000 villagers converged onto the area.

They sang peace songs to greet a dozen Bangladeshi peacekeepers, another dozen U.N. officials and several Liberian musicians who arrived for a so-called sensitization campaign.

A local rebel leader wearing a red beret, Chetih Amayo, used his cane to keep curious children away from the visitors.

He told the U.N. representatives he is ready to disarm.

"I'm a MODEL soldier from first platoon," he said. "I have my commander around here and we are happy. If you come near me tomorrow, come with your soldiers, and make sure that we will be disarmed and ready for the disarmament team. We'll make sure to give you the arms. We only did that for freedom in the country."

MODEL was one of two rebel groups fighting against militias close to former President Charles Taylor. The former rebel turned president fled to Nigeria in August, effectively ending the war, and allowing the peacekeepers to deploy.

One of them, Bangladeshi Major Shaniul Hoque Shani, says he is surprised by the warm reception the troops have received.

"It's amazing. And I'm really enchanted at seeing their response, it's great," he said. "I've been in many other places like today's program, but wherever I have gone, I saw that everybody is saying, the first word we need - peace. We need peace, we need peace, and they all need peace. Now the peace workers have come, and I think the peace will be dispersed very soon."

For about one hour, officials from different U.N. agencies spoke to the crowd about all the aid they were to expect once the peacekeepers deployed, including food, health care and rehabilitation programs for former fighters.

A Swedish U.N. liaison officer, Major Goran Arvidsson, outlined the disarmament procedures and instructed them on safety.

"Some people turned up with explosives, grenades, mortar grenades, or rounds that have been fired, didn't work, but people had picked them up because they [thought they] should bring them to the disarmament. That is very dangerous," he said.

A head of militia fighters, General C. Kanteh, apologized to the crowd for the abuses committed by his fighters.

"We know we did plenty of things. We took people's chickens, goats, car, everything we took. You all understand. So I beg you to forgive us. So, forget all those things, all of you, we have to come back home," he said.

Even though many civilians are complaining the looting and terror continue unabated, Barclayville resident, Mary Fnyanti, says she is willing to forgive.

"We are happy to accept them in the community, because some of them, as the people say, some of them were doing it because it was hard to live," she said. "So now, the way things are like this, even we who are here, we'll try to comfort them, we'll console them. We won't tell them that, hey, weren't you holding a gun, and you did this to me. No, we won't do that."

The visit ended with a popular clown, called Boutini, telling children to go back to school and put the horrors of war behind them.

There are more than 12,000 peacekeepers in Liberia, deployed mostly in the capital, Monrovia.

Disarmament, which started briefly in the capital in December, was suspended when too many former fighters showed up and overwhelmed the system. The U.N. is promising, this time it will proceed in more orderly fashion.