Liberia: The U.S. Comes In

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When the U.S. finally came into Liberia, its presence was small, but loud. Harrier jets ripped low over rebel-controlled Monrovia Thursday as Nigerian peacekeepers moved to take over from the withdrawing insurgents. Cobra gunships buzzed the streets and Sea Knight transport helicopters disgorged about 60 American Marines into a muddy field next to the port, their downdraft sending a handful of admiring Liberians tumbling down an embankment. "We are very, very surprised," said Jebah Pabar, 33. "We did not expect we would see them. We've cried out for them so much, but this is the first time they're here on Liberian soil."

At the bridges that had formed the frontlines, Liberians had turned out in huge crowds, hoping that with the Nigerians ending nearly four weeks of rebel occupation, they could cross to find their families and food. As morning turned to afternoon, the hungry crowds pushed against the razor wire, and many used chunks of foam to kick out across the Mesurado river. Pirogues added to the water traffic, and soon a small flow of civilians were bypassing the checkpoints, waiting on the other side for their underwear to dry before getting dressed and heading into rebel territory.

Most had come to join the stream of looters. The rebels had held the port and the majority of the warehouses, and in recent days, theft had become rampant. Civilians filled wheelbarrows with World Food Program corn and wheat, and heaved bags of rice, car parts, and lumber onto their heads. The rebels parked a gas tanker by their headquarters and sold gallons of fuel.

The Nigerians had secured the port, but nothing else. Checkpoint guards sat in the shade as armed rebels drove in and out of areas they were supposed to have abandoned as part of the U.S.-brokered agreement, and truckloads of goods moved out of town. "What are we supposed to do?" said Theopholus Tawiah, the spokesman for the West African peacekeeping force. "How do we identify looted goods from ones which are purchased?" One U.S. official assigned to Liberia watched as the Nigerian force commander's driver loaded abandoned bags of looted toothpaste and canned meat into his 4x4. He dismissed the argument that turning a blind eye while the rebels withdrew would ensure a peaceful handover. "Yeah, but at what cost?" the official said. "Everything that these rebels are taking out of town, they've stolen from somebody here." Still, at least some order was returning to the deadly streets of Liberia's capital. "Are you going to find some things that aren't perfect?" said U.S. Ambassador John Blaney, who visited the Marines wearing a flak jacket and helmet. "I think you will. But remember the big picture."

There were already some encouraging signs. The British aid group Merlin was able to cross over to buy generator fuel needed to keep the country's vaccine stockpile refrigerated. In government-controlled Monrovia, the mortar-scarred businesses district near the front was reawakening. Mercy Menyongai, 30, had spent her morning cleaning out what had until last weekend been the government's military command post, filling up a bucket with ammunition and setting it aside for the soldiers to haul away. The only piece of military hardware left was an unexploded rocket she had carefully swept around. Since 1996 she had used the disused covered gas station to run her hair-braiding business, stopping only during the war. Menyongai smiled as an American helicopter passed over head. "It's like I ate breakfast," she said. "I haven't eaten anything, but I'm happy."