Mercy Corps Office Proves to be a Calm in the Midst of Liberia's Storm


August 18, 2003

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    Fighting in Liberia has forced over a million people from their homes and into makeshift shelters including Mercy Corps' Monrovia office. Photo: Reuters Photo courtesy Photo:

The recent shelling of Monrovia by belligerent forces, sent thousands of Monrovians and foreign nationals running helter skelter in search of safe refuge wherever such was available.

The onslaught on the city also killed hundreds of people and left many others maimed or disfigured apparently by shrapnel from exploding mortar shells.

The fighting and shelling were so intense that so many people including an elderly displaced woman in her seventies couldn't conceal her anger and frustration any longer when she bellowed, "This carnage is unprecedented. Just imagine the ferocity of this terror - my goodness, this never happened before in previous fights for this city."

She apparently had reference to the rebel NPFL war of the 90s started by former President Charles Taylor who was then a rebel leader of the defunct national patriotic front of Liberia.

The preceding fights for Monrovia on June 6 and 24 respectively along with the current hostilities, which commenced on July 18, caused a mass displacement of people throughout the city of Monrovia. People had to flee from their homes as the fighting intensified and progressed to avoid being killed by both government and rebel fire which some of the time seemed indiscriminate.

Close to five hundred people rushed to Mercy Corps' office in Monrovia and expatriate staff residence respectively at the diplomatic enclave of Mamba Point, to seek refuge from the intense fighting and shelling. They rushed through the main entrance of the residence, overwhelming attempts by Mercy Corps security guards to enter the compound in an orderly manner. The displaced people mostly women and children and a few men and teenage boys, brought with them a handful of clothing as time couldn't permit the grabbing of enough personal effects.

Contrary to the harsh living conditions that existed in other areas where displaced people were sheltering, people taking refuge at Mercy Corps premises, never experienced health problems as Mercy Corps staff members also sheltering at the premises from the Monrovia fighting, provided for the refugees and themselves, safe drinking water and made available for use toilet facilities, reducing the prospects of any outbreak of an epidemic.

During daylight hours, men and boys usually leave the relative safety of Mercy Corps premises to go out on what they termed "the hustle" and return in few hours, with food to keep their dependants alive amidst the harsh economic conditions occasioned by the fighting. According to these men and boys, their decision to go on the hustle depends of course on the military situation on the ground. If there isn't sporadic gunfire in the early morning hours, that signals that chances to go in search of food, are good. On the contrary, if the break of dawn is greeted by heavy exchanges of mortar and continuous gun fire, then one's best bet was to stay indoors, building courage to go out the moment the fighting subsides.

The latter scenario was the situation in which displaced people sheltering at the Mercy Corps residence compound found on the morning of Friday July 25. Mortar shells were dropped and exploded next door to the compound, violently shaking the residence and killing a displaced woman sheltering in a school building adjacent to Mercy Corps' expatriate residence. The shelling, which started at 6:30 a.m. while most people were still in bed, became ferocious with mortar bombs dropping in succession next door to Mercy Corps premises every two to three minutes. Fortunately, no Mercy Corps employees or displaced persons were injured from the blasts.

For Mercy Corps employees sheltering at the company's premises, it was like a home away from home with employees sharing things and holding devotions with other people who were equally displaced like themselves. Most times, other Mercy Corps employees not affected by the fighting called in via telephone to find out how their workmates and colleagues were doing and whether water and food were available and within their grasp - a clear demonstration of the ideals that Mercy Corps stands for - to alleviate suffering, poverty, oppression, etc.

One moment I vividly remember as I pen down this feature is the cooperation and level of understanding shown by the displaced people at Mercy Corps' premises. In an attempt to safeguard the lives and properties of both Mercy Corps staff members and that of the displaced people along with their belongings and Mercy Corps property, restrictions limiting access to and from Mercy Corps' premises were introduced. The cooperation received from the displaced people in this regard was resounding.

As dawn broke on Monday August 4, war-wearied Monrovians woke up early in the morning, some standing outside of the many displaced people centers set up in public and school buildings, expecting the much heralded arrival of peacekeepers from neighboring Sierra Leone. They were indeed not disappointed at all as at about 11:00 a.m., two helicopters appeared in the skies above Monrovia, cruising above the horizon apparently from Freetown, Sierra Leone heading for the Roberts International Airport, which according to reports, the peacekeepers were first expected to secure. The sound of the choppers' engines was received with jubilation, cheers and excitement from Liberians who have anxiously and patiently waited for this moment. It was the peacekeepers, arriving at last to help restore, peace, sanity and hope to this war-torn country. Once on the ground the peacekeepers were expected to create a buffer between the belligerent forces, gain access to the Freeport to enable relief agencies collect food supplies and distribute it to Monrovia's starving population.

The arrival of the peacekeepers speed up the resignation and departure from the country of Charles Taylor. This happened on Monday August 11. His departure from the presidency was met with acclaimed jubilation and relief by thousands who flock to the streets of Monrovia as the news came through the airwaves.

The level of jubilation became more pronounced when news of Taylor's departure from the country via the Roberts International airport was made known and U.S. military choppers suddenly took to the skies from the convoy of U.S. warships, which had been anchored off the Liberian coast for a week.

As Liberians welcome these developments, they are certain that the conducive, peaceful and right environment that they have been yearning for - an environment that could create appropriate conditions for the enhancement of improved livelihood and developmental projects for their country - is certainly at hand.