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The outer limits

By Urs Kluser
In the middle of the last century, when the idea behind the ICRC was born on a battlefield, wars were fought among men organised into armies that functioned according to rules and regulations. On the brink of the next century, war has become less an organised event and more a raw unleashing of violence that follows no rules, respects no laws and spares no one. In such cases, the ICRC finds it more and more difficult to carry out its humanitarian mandate.

I’ve just come from hell. Why should I go back there?” George was answering a journalist who wanted to know if he ever intended to return to his village near Lac, a town in rural Liberia. George and his family had just arrived in Buchanan, a city in one of Liberia’s safe zones controlled by the Monitoring Group of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG) and, like countless other civilians who have fled frequent skirmishes between the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) and Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front (NPFL), they tell horrifying stories of abuse and forced labour.

It is hardly surprising that those arriving in the safe havens are usually women, children and the elderly. George had a lucky escape. Men are often killed, forced into labour or to join factions or held as human shields against the enemy.

From time to time reports of the many massacres in rural Liberia reach the capital Monrovia. In April some 60 civilians were chopped to death in Yosi, a small town 30 kilometres from Buchanan. The members of the guilty faction accused the villagers of having helped the rival party.
Occasionally the residents of Monrovia, swollen to double its pre-war size by the displaced, have a rude reminder of the reality faced by those living in the countryside. In December 1994 citizens of Paynesville, an out-lying suburb of the city, were awoken by the screams of their neighbours as more than 60 people were hacked to death and then burnt by people in military uniforms. No one has claimed responsibility for the massacre, although accusations abound, and no one will ever establish who did it.



The indestructible dollar

This is a senseless war which is not characterised by ideology, politics, face-to-face combat between faction fighters or, despite appearances, ethnicity. It is instead a war of economic gain, random massacring, wholesale looting and naked greed. It is a war that confuses the Liberian people and those who are watching it closely. One prominent member of the expatriate community said recently, “I’ve been here for almost 30 years but I understand less and less of what is happening as each day goes by.”

The leaders of Liberia’s proliferating factions long ago stopped pretending to be fighting for political ideals. They make no excuses for the fact that this war is now about natural resources and personal power. Everything that can be exploited in this rich country — diamonds, gold, rubber and hard wood timber — is controlled and traded by the faction leaders either for their personal well-being or to support the war machines that enable the continued rape of their nation.

Amidst the chaos and destruction, trade flourishes. It is not unusual for someone having a drink after a hard day’s work at a local hotel in Monrovia to be offered diamonds of different sizes. Diamonds are still imported into Europe in quantities as great as before the conflict began. Fine quality logs, ready for shipment abroad, are piled high in the port of Buchanan. Other goods are either exported through neighbouring countries or find their way abroad through ports along the coast.

It is no small wonder that the arms embargo has never been implemented effectively and it is only logical to ask whether anybody really has an interest in ending such a well-functioning war economy.

“Major Rambo” on drugs

The conflict in Liberia is not a “classic” war with clearly identified troops and responsible commanding structures. The different warring factions consist mainly of young uneducated combatants who are under the influence of drugs. Some put the estimates of child soldiers at 6,000 or ten per cent of those carrying arms. They give themselves combat names such as “Major Rambo”, “Captain Double-Trouble” and “General Snake”, and the use of indiscriminate and sadistic violence is frequent.

The leaders of most of the factions live in the comfortable environment of Monrovia or have representatives there. From Monrovia, they claim to have firm control over their fighters who are scattered throughout the bush where the situation is highly volatile and subject to change from one day to another. In fact, their control is often tenuous, to say the least.

Should peace effectively take hold in the near future, the rehabilitation and re-education of the young girls and boys misused for the personal interests of the different warlords will be one of Liberia’s major challenges. Many children and adolescents will need expert help to overcome their traumatic experiences and to rid themselves of guilt and drug dependence.


ICRC’s dilemma

Economics, the steadily increasing number of factions, the uncertain chain of command and the unadulterated violence (including killings, cannibalism and complete disrespect for the mortal remains of victims) have made humanitarian work in the Liberian conflict complex indeed.

ICRC interventions in Liberia during the last few years reflect these difficulties. During 1992 one local employee was shot dead and one expatriate was wounded in a tragic incident in Bomi. Additionally, in 1992 expatriates had to leave NPFL areas because of the increasing danger for foreign aid workers. In October 1993 it was possible for the ICRC to resume activities in NPFL-held areas but fighting in Lofa forced humanitarian agencies working there to withdraw. Until recently no agency was able to restart operations in Northern Lofa.

In 1994 there was an increase in military activities in several regions of Liberia. Fighting between the NPFL and the newly created LPC in southern Liberia created a situation of confusion and general insecurity which hampered — in some areas paralysed — humanitarian action. Relief work was interrupted in Cape Mount and Bomi counties when fresh clashes broke out between the Mandingo and Krahn wings of Ulimo.

In September 1994, when a coalition force of different factions drove NPFL from its stronghold Gbarnga, the civilian population and any remaining representatives of international agencies had to face widespread looting and severe harassment. The ICRC, along with all other agencies, UN military observers and ECOMOG troops, had to evacuate its expatriates. Through a wide-ranging food programme, ICRC had been reaching 120,000 people a month in Bong and Margibi county before the work was forced to a halt.

Since the beginning of 1995, humanitarian agencies have been able to work in fairly safe conditions in the ECOMOG-controlled zones. Although the majority of the population can be reached within these zones, several hundred thousand people are trapped in rural Liberia. Recently a few agencies have returned to the NPFL-controlled areas despite complex and dangerous working conditions. They report alarming conditions among the civilian population, with global high malnutrition rates.

In view of the extreme nature of the hostilities, the ICRC is still not working in the zones outside ECOMOG’s control. A year later, it has not been able to obtain the security guarantees needed to operate there. This, of course, presents the ICRC with a critical dilemma: only too aware of the very real needs of people trapped in the conflict it is paralysed, in a sense, and unable to help. Resolving this dilemma promises to be a long and painful process.

The recent signing of the country’s 13th peace agreement and the installation of a new government in which the key figures of the Liberian conflict play an active part has given rise to new hopes that the nightmare is coming to an end.

Urs Kluser
Urs Kluser is an ICRC delegate based in Monrovia.

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