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A nation loses its innocence

The image of Liberia's civil war that Gabriel Williams remembers best is that of rebels with automatic weapons patrolling the capital in stolen lingerie, brassieres, wedding gowns and women's wigs. "It was frightening to come out of the door and see a rebel standing there with a handbag and an AK-47, looking at you with his red eyes," said Williams, editor of the Inquirer newspaper in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. "Your blood got chilled."

The rebels, a ragtag army drawn from rural northern Liberia, had never seen a city before they captured Monrovia, and some simply couldn't resist the temptation of looting shops and homes, then patrolled neighborhoods in their stolen finery.

During my visit to Monrovia three weeks ago, I heard many such stories from survivors of the war in Liberia _ a West African country founded by freed American slaves about 150 years ago.

But when I arrived, the landscape itself told much of the story.

Liberia's international airport outside Monrovia was in rebel hands. So I flew into a small commercial airfield on a cargo plane chartered by a private company.

One of the first things I noticed was that there were no palm trees in many parts of the city, only stumps.

When war came to the city last year, the food ran out. So Liberians cut down the trees and ate the inner bark. They ate the dogs, the cats and the rats. And then they ate the animals at the zoo.

Once reminiscent of rural Mississippi, Monrovia is now dotted with mass graves, and the city has been destroyed. Its southern colonial mansions with pillared porches have crumbled under shell fire. There is no running water and little electricity, and schools and banks are closed. A few shops have opened, but the most lively streets are those where people hawk looted goods on the sidewalks: chemistry textbooks, door handles, gutted computers, appliances, worn shoes and light bulbs.

And though the fighting has stopped, the war is not over.

Liberia's government controls only Monrovia _ about as much territory as the original American settlers bought from natives in 1822 with $300 worth of rum, trinkets and mirrors. The rest of the country is held by rebels.

"Everything we built over the last 150 years we destroyed in 15 months," said the Rev. Isaac Harmon, a Methodist minister.

"I still cannot believe that we Liberians were capable of the things we did to each other. This nation was founded on Christian principles. And yet people were killing each other, beheading each other, bayoneting babies, eating parts of people's bodies," Harmon said.

Liberian officials estimate that about 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the war. The U.S. State Department says about 13,000 people were killed. One-third of Liberia's 2.5-million people are refugees in neighboring countries. The rest have been displaced within the country.

The war was born of Liberia's confused identity.

The ghost of America in Africa

In the early 1800s, many white Americans became concerned over the presence of freed slaves. They floated the idea of a black homeland in Africa. Most black Americans rejected it as racist.

The few thousand blacks to whom this idea appealed were groomed for a mission. They were to "civilize" their brothers and sisters in Africa.

Founded by freed slaves, Liberia was Africa's only independent republic at a time when most of the continent was colonized by Europeans. But Americo-Liberians, as the descendants of the original settlers are known, themselves discriminated against the 95 percent of Liberians who were native to the land, and even practiced slavery.

Even today, although Liberians claim to have wiped out this disparity, their history books refer to Americo-Liberians as pioneers and "civilized." The native-born are referred to as indigenous people and heathens.

Liberia is a strange mixture of Christianity and witchcraft, African tribalism and American pop culture. This is Africa, but everywhere you run into the ghost of America.

The majority of the population is made up of indigenous ethnic tribes. Three out of four Liberians are illiterate. And although it is officially called a Christian nation, only one-third of the people are Christian. There are some Moslems, but most are animists, worshiping nature. Belief in witchcraft is strong. For a price, practitioners make human sacrifices and use their victims' organs to increase the superhuman strength of their clients. Most Liberians, even Christians, believe all their past presidents _ who were Baptist or Methodist _ relied on this magic to stay in power.

At the same time, Liberians wear T-shirts that proclaim loyalty to American college basketball, California Raisins and Bruce Springsteen's 1988 tour.

The original settlers named Monrovia after President James Monroe, who was a member of the American Colonization Society, a private organization dedicated to the African repatriation of freed slaves. The Liberian flag is red, white and blue, with a single star and 11 stripes. Its constitution was written by a Harvard law school dean. Police officers wear uniforms that are copied from the New York Police Department's summer uniform.

The city of Harbel, the site of the Firestone rubber plantation, the world's largest, is a hybrid of the names of the plantation's American owners, Harvey and Isabel Firestone.

Liberians believed they were America's favored children. That began to change in 1980.

Death on the beach: Doe arrives

The last president, Samuel K. Doe, ended the political monopoly of Americo-Liberians, who had held power continuously since they founded Liberia.

Doe, then a 28-year-old master sergeant in the army, and a handful of soldiers scaled the walls of the presidential mansion, captured President William Tolbert and killed him.

The next day, Doe paraded several top governmental officials stripped to their underwear and shot them on Monrovia's beach. The firing squad was tipsy. Crowds of Liberians cheered as the soldiers giggled and aimed again at their targets.

"Everyone thought it would be a new beginning for the country," recalled Philip Banks, Liberia's attorney general. "But Mr. Doe made the same mistake that the Americo-Liberians did."

Doe amended the constitution, discarding such references as: "We the people of Liberia were originally inhabitants of the United States of America."

And although Doe promised to step down quickly and hold an election, he concentrated power among members of his own small Krahn tribe instead. He then held an election widely believed to be rigged, and continued as president.

The war against Doe began on Christmas Eve 1989, when a former government official, Charles Taylor, and about 100 Libyan-trained rebels entered the country from their base in neighboring Ivory Coast. The rebels belonged to the Gio and Mano tribes, native to Liberia's northern Nimba county.

Armah Kpissay, a college junior, remembers hearing Doe deliver a speech on government radio in which he said that traitors had entered the country disguised as members of a soccer team but that the army was in full control.

"We didn't think it was anything too serious. . . . We thought this was going to be another unsuccessful coup," Kpissay said. Besides, it was Christmas. "We were exchanging presents and saying, "peace on Earth.' Christmas in Liberia is very special."

It wasn't very serious to begin with. But things changed when Doe's Krahn soldiers rampaged through Nimba county in pursuit of the rebels and killed thousands of rival Gio and Mano tribespeople in the process.

Thousands of teen-agers and young boys took up arms. "Doe soldiers killed their parents, their relatives, so they wanted to kill all Krahn," said Dorothy Gbatu, a Gio nurse.

"We all cheered Mr. Taylor because everybody thought he had come to deliver the country of Mr. Doe," said Amos Sawyer, head of the current interim government.

Many Liberians thought the war would be over in a few days, but it dragged on for months. Thousands of rural Liberians fled the countryside and sought refuge in Monrovia.

The rebels seized control of the countryside, cut off Monrovia's food supplies and encircled the capital.

"There was no rice left," said Foday Kawah, a junior at the University of Liberia. "If you found rice, it was $25 a cup," Kawah said. "You could buy rice like you buy drugs. Secretly. Because if the soldiers knew, they would come and shoot you." Ordinarily, a cup would cost 25 cents.

"I saw people giving their VCR to the soldiers for two cups of rice," said Emmanuel Osadebay, a Nigerian who works for the U.S. Embassy.

People broke into banks and car dealerships for spoils, but the more desperate broke into shuttered shops and warehouses, searching for food.

Rabi Eid said some people broke through the roof of his photo studio in downtown Monrovia and took away several gallons of developing fluid containing cyanide.

They either couldn't read the contents, or they were so starved they didn't care what it was. "So many people died. They thought it was Coca-Cola concentrate and just drink it up," he said.

Distracted world looks away

When the rebels made their way into Monrovia, Doe's army began to shell the city from the presidential mansion.

Soon, eastern Monrovia, once lined with embassies, expensive homes and government buildings, was wrecked. Only the U.S. Embassy and adjoining buildings were spared. All the factions wanted American backing.

The world watched, but did little else.

"I suppose Liberia's problem has always been that whenever something happens to it, everybody thinks of it as an American problem," said Colin Scott, a Briton who works for the Save the Children relief agency in Monrovia. "The British and the French look after their former colonies when something happens there. Liberia's always been perceived as an American colony."

When the United States sent in about 2,000 Marines, Liberians thought they would be saved. But the Marines were on a different mission. They evacuated U.S. citizens and other expatriates. A few stayed behind to defend the embassy.

By this time, bodies had begun to pile up in Monrovia's streets. Some embassy officials say they saw Liberians weakened by hunger crawling on their knees in the streets, looking for grass to eat.

One night, Doe's soldiers went into St. Peter's Lutheran Church and killed 600 civilians, mostly Gio and Mano tribespeople who had sought shelter there.

"They stuck knives into people, and then people were running, climbing up the fans and breaking the windows, so they opened their machine guns," said Alexander Liberty, a survivor of the massacre.

Soldiers also went to some of the city's hospitals and killed patients who they thought were Gio and Mano.

Liberia's West African neighbors began to wonder if they should intervene by sending a peacekeeping force. The United States pressed the United Nations to do something.

On Aug. 1, the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to begin deliberations on Liberia. But in another part of the world, several time zones away, Iraq was invading Kuwait.

"The United Nations forgot all about Liberia," said Lamini Waritay, spokesman for Liberia's interim government.

And Monrovia residents who had prayed and waited for the rebels to come were shocked to meet their saviors. The rebels had joined in the looting spree begun by Doe's army. When a West African peacekeeping force was finally assembled and arrived that month, some of its members joined in the looting, Liberians say.

"There are many reports that people saw (the peacekeepers) loading Mercedeses and televisions and computers into their ships and taking it back with them to Ghana and Nigeria," said Williams, the editor of the Inquirer.

In the end, civilians joined in the looting too. "People didn't just take food. If the neighbor's house was empty, they went and took anything they wanted. The roof. The television, Even the doors, _ they just took them out and used as firewood or sold to somebody," said Kou Bollie, a librarian.

Child's play: Monrovia liberated

The rebels had come prepared to play the role of liberators. They called themselves commandos and each had a special name or number. There were so many Rambos, they numbered them, said Armah Kpissay, the student, who ran into a rebel called Rambo 60. "They would boast to each other, "I killed six.' And someone would say, "So what? I killed eight this morning.' "

"They were behaving as if they were playing a game," Kpissay said. "I saw one boy cut off a man's head with a cutlass (machete). Then he looked at the wife and said, laugh. And she had to laugh." The rebels also bayoneted pregnant women, he said. "They would say this one will become another Krahn, so better to kill him now," Kpissay recalled.

The rebels set up checkpoints around Monrovia. People looking for food or wanting to escape the devastation had to pass through the checkpoints. There were checkpoints every few miles on all major roads leading to Liberia's border.

Lucy Shellu, 18, was pregnant when the war broke out. She remembers what she saw at a checkpoint when she walked across the border to Sierra Leone.

Many people had lined up to get through, including elderly people being pushed in wheelbarrows. A Krahn soldier, hoping to escape this way, was sitting in a wheelbarrow wearing women's clothing and earrings.

A woman rebel, code-named 245, stopped him and told him to undress.

"She pulled at his dress and a grenade fell out of his drawers. The man began to cry. He was begging for his life. She took a cutlass and chopped him up."

The rebels made men roll up their trouser legs at checkpoints. If they saw boot marks, they accused them of being soldiers and killed them. "They were killing almost everybody," Cooper said. "If you looked sad when they killed someone, they said, you are also Krahn and killed you. If you looked healthy, they said you were protected by Doe and killed you. If you worked for the government, even as a janitor, they killed you."

Thomas Ndama, an insurance salesman made it past some checkpoints because some rebels recognized him from their years together in school. At the last checkpoint on the border, one rebel asked him to prove he was not a member of the Mandingo tribe, Moslems who were allied with the Krahn.

"He said, "Are you sure you are Christian? Tell me, what the Bible says in Romans 6:23.' " Ndama's years in bible school paid off. He recited: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." The rebel asked him if he wanted to stay on and join their militia. He finally let Ndama pass because he was sick and starving.

"Big brother' America

Many Liberians say the war taught them that they never really mattered much to America.

"Mr. Bush sent 2,000 Marines and they got out the Americans, guarded their property and watched us get slaughtered because Liberians don't have no oil," said Alexander Liberty, the survivor of the church massacre. He was able to escape across the border to Sierra Leone.

"All this time, we felt we had a big brother telling us what to do. But the big brother took his hands away from us when we needed him."

Liberty says his name is testimony to his country's ties with America. His parents named him Jakuta, or "the one who survived." But they replaced it with an American name they thought would help him succeed. "We looked up to America as the greatest country in the world. It is our mother country. That is what we have been taught since Liberia was founded. But no more. We have seen America's true colors."

He says he can't believe that many Americans don't even know a country called Liberia exists.

"Our first president was an American. . . . Our constitution is copied from America. Our capital is named after an American. We could have named it after King George or the czar of Russia, but we didn't. We named it after an American."

Othello Payma, another refugee, said: "How can Americans say we have no ties? We have more ties to America than the people of Kuwait."

U.S. officials say Liberia's war was never an American problem. "It is a Liberian problem, a Liberian civil war," says Peter de Vos, the U.S. ambassador, who has stayed in the country since the war began. "The president decided that he didn't want to send American soldiers and have them shooting Liberians and being shot at by Liberians. And I think that decision was a wise one."

U.S. officials acknowledge that there is a "special relationship" between the two countries, but they also say they are weary of Liberia's long dependence on American favor.

"There are other priorities in the world now _ East-West relations, the problems in East Africa, Bangladesh," de Vos said. "Liberia's a small country. The world won't wait for it. There are only 2-million people in this country. The major actors here grew up together and know each other. We've wondered why they can't agree on the best solution and work with each other."

Liberia's interim president, Amos Sawyer blames the country's disintegration on its recessive American gene and its neglectful parent.

"The United States perceives Liberia as an embarrassment. It epitomizes too clearly a failure of American policy. It's a reminder of an American problem, a chapter it would rather forget."

Despite its early interest, America remained aloof until it realized the importance of Liberia's rubber resources during World War II. After that, Liberia became one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in Africa.

America reaped several benefits. The Firestone plantation represents one of the best business deals in the world. Henry Firestone acquired a million acres of prime soil for 6 cents an acre. The United States placed several sensitive installations in Liberia: a satellite-tracking station, a CIA relay station to transmit messages to and from Africa, a tower that transmitted Voice America broadcast signals to the whole continent. Liberia was the only country in Africa where U.S. military planes were granted landing rights with only 24 hours' notice.

U.S. support did not waver when Doe ended the Americo-Liberian monopoly on political power. The United States gave his government $500-million in military and economic aid.

But the relationship began to sour. U.S. aid constituted about one-third of Liberia's budget. But when the country fell behind in its interest payments on those loans two years ago, Congress cut all but humanitarian aid.

Until last year, before most Americans here were evacuated, about 3,000 Americans lived in Liberia. But when the civil war swept down from the country's northern fringe and seeped into the capital, the U.S. government ordered its citizens out. A flotilla of Marines kept a vigil off the coast of Monrovia for several months. They made forays into the city with helicopters and flew American citizens out. The Americans left between February and June.

In September, Doe was captured and killed by Prince Johnson, a lieutenant in Doe's army who led a faction of rebel soldiers dressed like American GIs.

Doe died blubbering in a pool of his own blood, surrounded by jeering rebels who sliced off his ears with a hunting knife and poured a can of Budweiser beer over his head when he asked for a drink of water. While the spectacle was being recorded on videotape, Johnson sang an American country music hit by Jim Reeves.

A cease-fire in November stopped the fighting, and the West African peace-keeping force prevented Charles Taylor, the main contender for the presidency, from taking power in Monrovia. Taylor's Libyan-armed National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) controls 12 of Liberia's 13 counties.

Taylor is a former government official who fled to the United States several years ago when Doe charged him with embezzling money. He was jailed in Boston but escaped just before being extradited.

Interim President Sawyer was appointed by the five-nation West African peace-keeping group. A peace conference in Monrovia attended by the major political parties and warring factions collapsed at the end of March after Taylor's group walked out.

Sawyer had accepted a professorship at Howard University in Washington, D.C., late last year. "I thought the peace talks would be over and I could start teaching in fall, but . . . "

He has appealed to Taylor to work with his government. Taylor refuses to join it unless he can be president. But Johnson's faction rejects Taylor's demand. Johnson was originally a subordinate and ally of Taylor but later became an enemy.

I visited Johnson at the base he has established for his men at one end of Monrovia. He has moved into a house he calls his executive mansion.

There, he holds court with his men in a room filled with looted sofas and decorated with several pictures of himself, Jesus Christ, Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II. He has run out of the 700 cartons of Budweiser he appropriated when he captured Monrovia's port. But he keeps his men happy with large supplies of local beer and invites them to watch movies with him on his VCR. At the time I visited, he had two tapes, Invaders From Mars and Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar.

Johnson says he is happy with the way the war ended. "We didn't kill civilians. Only soldiers and traitors." He says he killed Doe because Doe violated the Geneva Convention, the international rules governing conduct in wartime.

Liberia's future is uncertain. Relief workers returned to the country in November. They buried the bodies of patients who had been abandoned months ago in Monrovia's looted hospitals, and they started distributing food.

"We have our rice now, but we don't know when we will have the whole country back together again," said Moses Nagbe, the writer.

Nami Eid, the Lebanese businessman, returned recently to Monrovia to assess the damage to his electrical equipment shop. He is planning to return permanently to Lebanon. He settled here 15 years ago because of the civil war in his own country.

"This place was safer than New York," he said. "Even Geneva. Now, it is becoming another Lebanon."

Refugees are returning to Monrovia, and the city's population is soon expected to reach 1-million, twice its normal size. There are no jobs yet to go back to. People hang around and talk about the war and how a transition will be made to an elected government.

Already, myths have been woven.

The rebels were able to win because they had acquired the bulletproof "medicine" Liberia's leaders possessed.

"I saw it with my own eyes when the rebels came into town," said Williams, the editor. "The rebels would say to each other, "Man, scratch my back,' and somebody would shoot an Uzi at the man _ pa, pa, pa, pa, pa, pa _ and he would pick the bullets out of his shirt and put them in his pocket."

They wonder how Taylor can be unseated since he has bulletproof medicine.

People also have been going to church a lot lately. At an Episcopal church, a child is baptized and the priest asks the congregation: "Do you renounce Satan and all the forces of darkness that work against the greatness of God?"

"I do," they chant.

They sing hymns accompanied by an organ donated by the Firestone company and they hand out cans of beef chunks and used clothing donated by churches in America. Then it's time for communion. They seem to submit to a more comforting ritual brought to their shores by their forefathers from America. They shun their waywardness and, instead, they eat the symbolic flesh and drink the symbolic blood of Christ.

_ Due to illness, Reena Shah has been forced to curtail her tour of western Africa and has returned to St. Petersburg. Ms. Shah will write several more stories on her visits to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.