Welcoming America With Loaded Arms

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Trophies: Young government soldiers with their chekpoint on display

The teenage soldiers at the checkpoint call their outpost 25 miles outside Monrovia the God Bless You Gate — because, says Sergeant Kofa Mailer, 17, "when you pass by this gate, God bless you." The gate is made from a long reed and festooned with human bones. A femur hangs beside a pelvis and near a piece of a vertebra. The guards at the God Bless You Gate are members of a Small Boys Unit, government-employed child soldiers. They say they are generals, lieutenants and sergeants, but even with their AK-47s, they look more like schoolchildren. Their leader, General James Curry, says he is 21; he looks a decade younger. "I shoot the man," he says when asked about the bones dangling from the tollgate. "I cut him, and then I eat."

That grisly image is just one indication of the havoc that 14 years of civil war have wrought in Liberia — and a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead for the Bush Administration, should it decide to send U.S. troops to Liberia as part of a 1,000-person, African-led peacekeeping force. Accompanying Bush on his five-nation trip to Africa last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said any deployment of U.S. troops would be "very limited in duration and scope" and would coincide with the departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor, who Bush has demanded must give up power as a condition for the U.S.'s sending troops there. In an interview with TIME, Taylor said he would leave a "good, working week" after the arrival of international peacekeepers. He plans to stick around long enough to preside over a state funeral honoring his late mother. "That will be one of the last official acts that I carry out as President," Taylor says, "and then I guess I'll be out of here."

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What Taylor will leave behind — and what the U.S. may soon inherit — is a nightmare. More than half the country is controlled by the two rebel groups that have battled Taylor's troops for the past three years. Both the rebels and the government forces are notorious for atrocities, including rape, cannibalism and the use of child soldiers. The fighting has killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to refugee camps in the capital, Monrovia, where the population has been swelling to more than 1 million. Now the city faces a humanitarian catastrophe. Many people in the camps have received no food distribution since March. "It's heartbreaking," says a U.S. official who visited a Monrovian refugee camp last week. "But in a way it gives you resolve. What I saw was a plea."

For now, the country's 3.5 million people appear desperate for foreign intervention, particularly by the U.S., which many still view as Liberia's godfather more than 150 years after the country was founded by freed American slaves. Foreign diplomats say the risk that the U.S. will face resistance is low. "The Liberian people love Americans too much," says a Western regional analyst in Monrovia. "This really is one country in Africa where it would be relatively easy to solve the problem with a small stabilization force and a small capital investment."

But for young Liberians who have known only war and killing, violence is a habit that may take years to outgrow. A big fear is that Taylor's exit will trigger an upsurge in violence, perhaps by Taylor's bands of teenage militias. Standing guard at the God Bless You Gate, Morris Diggs, 14, says he wants to go home and go back to school, but he doesn't even know where his parents are. "We are afraid. If Charles Taylor leaves, you think we are safe?" he asks. "When the President goes, who will take care of us? George Bush will take care of us?"