[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News (Scotland) on August, 30 2003]
When I arrived in Liberia a week ago today, I quickly realized I had forgotten just how hard it can rain in West Africa. The rainy season ends in October, but until then it will relentlessly thunder down on the population already beset by a torrent of troubles.
I am part of the Mercy Corps emergency response team to what the Liberians call the Third War. This is indeed the third time that this country has been pushed to the edge by armed conflict in the past 14 years.
Refugees from other parts of Liberia who have flooded into the city of Monrovia, and other up-country centers, looking for sanctuary and particularly for food, are also suffering in the rain. They are accommodated largely in camps but many have chosen to stay in villages where they have family connections.
Despite the efforts of the organizations servicing the needs of refugees in the camps, many will have had a sodden night. For some of the weakest, often the young and old, it will have been just too much and some will have died.
The World Food Program (WFP) is bringing in supplies of food as quickly as it can. A ship arrived a few days ago, but the looting of pre-positioned stocks means that hardship and hunger is inevitable. The aim is to feed some 204,000 people but even that will not be enough - the majority of Liberia’s 2.7 million inhabitants are short of food.
Economic activity has all but collapsed and jobs are in short supply. Every agency has a continuous throng of people outside its gates looking for work and none of them are put off by the No Vacancy signs on most gates. Creating the conditions to allow people to work, to buy food and re-establish their families and lives is a task that the organizations here can turn to only when immediate needs are met and security returns.
The numbers are enormous. Monrovia’s population has increased by almost 50 percent from 700,000 to an estimated one million people, and still refugees are on the move. On Monday, I met a representative of the 26,000 people in a camp called Salala, 100km north of Monrovia, who have fled five times in three years from the terror that rebel and government forces alike reap upon those unable to defend themselves.
Both sides of the conflict have been accused of recruiting child soldiers and they were in evidence at the roadblocks we passed on our way to and from Salala. A mid-teenage boy with a Kalashnikov rifle is a frightening sight - and doubly so if he is high with the wild stare of the heavy drug user.
All the armed groups represent a current danger to the population, as they extract taxes - or worse - from travelers or loot from an already chronically poor populace and the institutions that attempt to support them. Security and stability are pre-requisites of recovery, and security requires UN peacekeepers across the country. The first of those, though, will not arrive until the beginning of October at the earliest.
Disarming the rebel groups and various militias also represents a mammoth task. People, especially children, who have experienced the power that a gun gives them, will not lightly give up that source of power. Programs have to be set up to give ex-combatants jobs at the very least, to provide them with an alternative to simple banditry or moving off to another conflict in the region, which in turn may overflow back in to Liberia, as was the case with Sierra Leone.
In the meantime, security for aid organizations’ staff and goods and protection for vulnerable communities are major concerns. The UN and governments lobby regionally for control to be exercised by commanders over their armed groups.
Nigerian peacekeepers, called ECOMIL, patrol Monrovia and will elsewhere if needed. They have managed to stabilize the situation in Monrovia, but lack the numbers to push out of the city. The aid organizations and UN on the ground, meanwhile, keep contact with local commanders to allow for safe passage.
Problems do occur with the fighters manning individual roadblocks or operating away from the main routes. For these situations, we have procedures and we train staff to deal with them. But the combination of youth, guns and drugs is an unpredictable one.
Most communities have become fragile after decades of war and are now further stressed by the latest influx of refugees. In some villages, refugees outnumber the usual population four to one. This results in food becoming scarce and sources of safe water becoming over-used or contaminated.
And hunger, even when not life-threatening, weakens people, making them more susceptible to disease, whilst the search for food means that all other daily activities remain undone. Mercy Corps Liberia works with communities that have not moved, whilst the majority of other organizations currently concentrate, quite reasonably, on the large refugee settlements.
Mercy Corps Liberia has had a development program operational for a year now, working to help 97 communities around the country and although disrupted, this work aimed at stabilizing those communities will continue. A week after the emergency team arrived, we are beginning to support these communities directly through these difficult times, with emergency measures to allow people to stay within their homes and communities.
The speed at which we can help people will increase steadily, as will the numbers of people we are able to support. The fact that the development programming continues to run, alongside the emergency program, enables us to judge clearly when emergency support needs to stop and the communities can begin to stand on their own feet once again. Dependency is in no-one's interest.