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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

LIBERIA: Starving civilians risk bullets to scavenge for food

MONROVIA, 31 July 2003 (IRIN) - Every day, hundreds of starving people trapped by fighting in downtown Monrovia risk the stray bullets and random mortar shells to trudge out to the relatively peaceful eastern suburbs in search of food.

They mostly head for Paynesville, a suburb still relatively unscathed by the battle, where some shops and market stalls are still open. The trek takes several hours and along the way they must run the gauntlet of makeshift checkpoints manned by government militiamen with a ready eye for loot.

"We just have to do this or else hunger will kill us. That is more painful than dying straight away from bullets," Benedict Johnson, a primary school teacher out to scavenge for his next meal, told IRIN.

Two weeks into the latest assault on the city by the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), an increasing number of Monrovia's one million inhabitants have no food left. And almost no-one has access to safe drinking water.

Cholera is on the increase and health workers complain that it has become almost impossible to control. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported on Thursday that it was treating 300 cases per week.

The rebels have attacked the capital three times in the past two months, and many city residents have been forced to flee from their homes on each occasion. Despite plans to send in Nigerian troops as the vanguard of an international peacekeeping force, the crackle of machine gun fire and the thud of mortars still echoed over the city on Thursday morning.

Many of those who returned to their houses after the the first rebel incursion found their possessions looted by government fighters who swept in behind the departing LURD.

The little food still available in Monrovia has skyrocketed in price and is beyond the means of most people. Many have run out of the little money they ever possessed and have no opportunity to earn more. The cost of a 50-kg bag of rice, the staple food of Liberia, has risen five-fold from US $20 to US $100, and even then supplies are not always to be found.

People scavenge in torrential rain for leaves and roots to boil up and make soup with. Those lucky enough to catch a dog or cat can enjoy a morsel of meat.

In the diplomatic quarter of Mamba Point, where tens of thousands of displaced people have sought refuge close to the heavily fortified US embassy and the nearby United Nations compound, many are already starving.

The premises of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are crowded with people sleeping rough on the bare floor. Many others huddle on the staircase each night from dusk until dawn.

Mohammed Siryon, the officer in charge of OCHA-Liberia, said a catastrophe loomed. "The staple food can no longer be found. Malnutrition among children is very high. If nothing is done immediately to address this food shortage, the residents of Monrovia will soon face starvation," he said

Mamie, a 16-year-old girl who said she was separated from her parents at the height of one battle, told IRIN: " My two little brothers and myself slept hungry for two nights. Thank God, I met one of my friends who gave me biscuits to eat today".

Most of the displaced people interviewed by IRIN complained that they had gone for several days without eating.

"Let the government and the rebels stop fighting. That is the only way for us to freely move around to look for food," said Solo, one of the pathetic army of starving drifting people at Mamba Point. "They must think about us, we are tired of suffering. We have no water, no food," he added.

The head of the French charity Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger), Frederic Bardou, warned of starvation in the city if the fighting does not stop.

He said ACF had begun distributing food supplements to the 51,000 displaced people who have gathered in squalid conditions at the Samuel K. Doe Sports complex in the eastern suburbs of the city and at other centres of refuge.

But the few aid agencies still offering a skeleton service to the army of 200,000 to 300,000 displaced people in Monrovia are simply unable to lay their hands on enough food to distribute. Most of the city's rice stocks were kept at warehouses in the port, which is now in rebel hands.

There is no longer any drinking water because Monrovia's mains water supply packed up years ago, forcing the authorities to distribute by tanker. But the water works lies in a rebel-held northern suburb of the city so the trucks are unable to carry supplies across the front line to the city centre.

Elizabeth Stewart, one an estimated 20,000 refugees gathered in the open air at the Greystone Compound, a residential annex of the US embassy, said she and her children were getting by on rainwater.

"We are not used to this kind of life, but we have to manage to survive" she added.

But Greystone's proximity to the US embassy offers no guarantee of protection. Last week more than 20 people sheltering in the crowded compound were killed when a rebel mortar shell exploded in their midst.

The situation inside Monrovia has become so desperate that many civilians are pouring out of the city towards Harbel, a town 30 km to the southeast. It is situated near Liberia's international airport and is the headquarters of the huge Firestone rubber plantation.

Displaced people have also been streaming into Harbel from the opposite direction to escape fighting around Buchanan, Liberia's second city, which fell to the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebel movement earlier this week.

Samuel Browne, the head of the Liberia's Refugees, Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), the government agency responsible for coordinating help for the displaced, said on Thursday that nearly 20,000 people had moved into Harbel and its surroundings.

"It is hard to give any definite figure at the moment, because people are coming every day in hundreds from Grand Bassa (the county of which Buchanan is the capital)," Brown said.

An IRIN correspondent who visited Harbel, said the town was overwhelmed by displaced people, many of whom had sought shelter from the daily tropical downpours in a school and industrial buildings on the Firestone rubber estate.

Smell-No-Taste, a residential quarter next to the airport, was also packed with the displaced people. However planes were still able to take off and land.


Themes: (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs



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