The outer limits
By Urs Kluser
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
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
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
“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.
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 is an ICRC delegate based in Monrovia.
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