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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Monday 20 December 2004

LIBERIA: No more guns and nothing to do, say disgruntled ex-combatants

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

VOINJAMA, 20 Dec 2004 (IRIN) - "This is not what we wanted, just remaining here doing nothing," said Mamadee Keller, a former Liberian rebel fighter. He was speaking on behalf of a group of ex-combatants who have been left loitering, sometimes begging, on the streets of this remote town since handing in their weapons last month under a UN disarmament programme.

Like the other idle former fighters hanging out in Voinjama, the headquarters town of Lofa County in the heavily-forested northwest of Liberia, Keller once belonged to the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group, which has dominated life here for the past five years.

They and more than 100,000 other former combatants in Liberia's 14-year civil war, agreed to turn in their weapons to UN peacekeepers earlier this year in return for a US$300 resettlement allowance and the pledge of jobs and training opportunities.

"We were promised by both our senior commanders and the NCDDRR [National Commission on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Rehabilitation) that those good programs would help us become productive in society", Keller said.

There is widespread grumbling among former combatants across Liberia that they have been short-changed by the country's August 2003 peace agreement.

Keller said about 2,000 of the 5,000 former LURD fighters in remote Lofa County near Guinea and Sierra Leone were idle and destitute with nothing to do.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), bringing peace to Liberia ahead of elections in October 2005 will depend largely on getting these youngsters with little experience of life other than war into school or into jobs.

"If reintegration goes wrong again, war is almost certain to break out sooner or later," the Brussels-based think-tank said in a report earlier this month.

It recalled that an earlier 1997 disarmament and reintegration scheme in Liberia went badly wrong, sparking off disappointment, anger and ultimately a full-scale resumption of civil war.

Now bad feeling has broken out in Voinjama where an IRIN correspondent saw close to 50 ex-LURD fighters sitting idly just a few yards away from the main UN peacekeeping base in what they said was a protest to attract attention to their plight.

"We the ex-combatants are facing several problems in Lofa," said teenager Varley Dolley. "Before we disarmed we were told that there would be vocational training and other educational benefits for us, but since then we have not received any".

Some of the young ex-fighters, boys and girls mostly aged between 15 and 20, have virtually become beggars, asking passers-by for money to get by.

Dolley, who was hoping to become a mechanic, said that "many times we come and just sit in front of the Pakistani (UN) peacekeepers base with the hope of them coming to our aid for training and schooling. But we have not seen sign of hope".

Edward Sally, another ex-fighter, said the slow but steady return of Liberian refugees was also complicating life for the former rebels. "Some of us now have nowhere even to sleep. Some of our friends have been kicked out of houses where we were residing because the original owners are returning and claiming them."

The estimated 5000 rebels operating in isolated Lofa country, a LURD stronghold, were among the last of the total 102,193 rebels to be disarmed in an eight-month campaign that ended late November, a month behind schedule.

In all, UN peacekeepers collected 27,000 weapons, 6.2 million rounds of small arms ammunition and approximately 30,000 pieces of heavier ordnance, including mortar bombs, from disarmament.

In return, combatants fighting for former President Charles Taylor and the two rebel movements that opposed him - LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) - were promised a US$ 300 resettlement grant, half of it handed out against disarmament, the remainder to help their reintegration on return to their home community. They were also promised help with schooling and vocational training.

But the former LURD fighters in Voinjama claim they have received only half the promised cash and no training.

"We have sent several communications to the commission in Monrovia that some of us want our remaining US$150 payment after the disarmament, so as to enable us do petty trades instead of depending on the promised educational package which we are not sure of," Keller said.

"We are not going to do anything that would disturb the peace," he added. "All we want is our training packages".

But one angry ex-fighter interrupted: "Our friends are in schools in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia, but we are not".

Speaking to IRIN in Monrovia, LURD leader Sekou Conneh said he was coming under mounting pressure from ex-combatants to ensure the delivery of their disarmament benefits.

"Those former fighters have been abandoned," Conneh said. "We are embarrassed that what was told me they would have as disarmament packages, they are not getting at the moment".

"All aspects of the peace agreement must be implemented," he added, "including the one that stated that fighters should benefit from training programmes after disarmament. This is important to maintain the peace we are now enjoying in this country".

But Molley Passaway, the spokesman for the National Commission on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (NCDDRR), told IRIN early this month that funds to provide education and training for the over 100,000 registered former combatants had run out.

"Out of those disarmed, only 26,000 are now benefiting from skills training and formal education, but the rest are of serious concern to the commission", he said.

The shortfall in training and jobs funds is due to the many more people registering for disarmament than had been expected.

Before the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) made a start to the programme, it estimated that 38,000 ex-fighters would show up to be demobilized.

But by the time the disarmament programme finally ended last month, nearly three times that many have reported to claim their benefits. But only one in four has actually handed in a weapon.

Critics of the UNMIL disarmament programme say many civilians who never fired a gun in anger have queued up to claim the $300 resettlement grant, with military commanders who put them up to the ruse taking a cut of their money along the way.

Back in September in New York, Liberia's transitional government and the United Nations warned donors in a joint document that restless ex-combatants who had handed in weapons but had not received promised education or training due to the cash shortage posed a threat to national security.

"The inability to absorb the demobilized combatants into training institutions is a major cause of increasing unrest and rioting," the document stated.

The statement was grimly prophetic, 16 people were killed in an outburst of rioting between Christians and Muslims in the capital Monrovia in late October. The violence spread like wildfire to several other major towns and resulted in UNMIL troops imposing a curfew for several days.

At about the same time, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) appealed for an additional US$ 58 million dollars to help train demobilized combatants over the next three years.

"Any disruption in placing these ex-combatants in the RR (rehabilitation and reintegration) programme will have serious consequences ..the overall peace process in Liberia", UNDP warned.

Only last week, the ICG added its voice to the chorus of warnings.

"Many observers fear that the presidential election in October 2005 will be seen as all-or-nothing affair, with the losers thoroughly excluded from power and thus left contemplating resumption of war," it said.

Failing a quick pay-out of the cash needed for reintegration, idle former fighters and hidden caches of arms which escaped disarmament would offer a prime recruiting pool.

"Donors who promised money in February 2004 must disburse it immediately if Liberian ex-combatants are not to be let down again," the ICG report said


This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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