UN Agencies, Relief Workers Flee Disarmament Site In Liberia
...As former Government Fighters go on the Rampage
By: Josephus Moses Gray
Foreign News Editor
Posted December 9, 2003
Barely 24 hours after the successful commencement of the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration (DDRR) of about 40,000 combatants of the bloody and devastated war in the West African State of Liberia, several hundred fighters of the disbanded ex-president Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party-led government staged a violent protests in the suburbs of Paynesville, some 10 miles from the capital.
The disarmament exercises which started on Sunday, 7th December at the Camp Schiefflin Military Cantonment site on the Robertsfield/Monrovia highway in Paynesville with about 3,000 fighters showing up with their arms and weapons in enthusiasm, turned sour on Monday at 08:00 when over 1000 Charles Taylor’s fighters carrying arms and weapons went all out on the rampage. There were heavy shootings throughout Monday night and Tuesday morning.
The violent protest by the fighters forced the United Nations agencies, humanitarian and relief workers as well as Child Protection and other organizations and individuals to flee the cantonment site.
While fleeing the site, the disgruntled fighters threw objectives and other instruments at the vehicles used by the aid workers. At one point, some of the fighters who were shooting in the air fired at some of the vehicles. As far my independent probe is concern, there has been no report of death.
In order to get an eyewitness account of the volatile military situation on December 8, I contacted three of my professional colleagues if they could joined me to get on the scene but they refused on grounds that it might degenerate into another round of street fighting.
One of the three journalists from a local independent daily advised that we should wait for at least four hours and observe the situation before venturing on the scene of the action but I refused and braved the storm to enable me report objectively and accurately.
At 010:00, I board a taxi cab from Central Monrovia to the St. Joseph Catholic’s Hospital/Old Road Junction. The vehicles from the directions of Monrovia could not go beyond this intersection for fear of the intense situation that was ahead of them. But only UNMIL and high profile individuals’ vehicle at that hour go beyond that direction.
Upon my arrival at the intersection, I was forced to embark upon a one-hour distance on foot since I wouldn’t get a commercial vehicle to ply the direction I was heading.
As soon as I arrived at the vicinity of the ELWA/Red Light, I thought I have entered into a battle zone, as people were seen running in various directions as heavy gun sounds were coming from different directions.
While at the ELWA/Red Light intersection, I took advantage of an unfinished concrete building where several other persons ran for safety. It was from that building I saw the fighters damaging vehicles and manhandling the vehicles occupants, thereby taking away personal belongings.
I also saw some fighters breaking into private homes and business centers, while others were looting personal belongings. Some civilians who refused to submit themselves to the fighters felt victims of the fighters’ brutality and violence.
The violent situation which appeared to be well organized, started from the ELWA intersection and at the populated business center of Red Light down to the 72nd Community near the Red Light market.
Some of the students who were in classes fled while other residents also escaped from their homes into different directions, leaving their belongings and properties at the mercy of God. As the fighters were looting the area, some of them were seen shooting in all directions, wounding some of the persons.
Reports from the Monrovia/Robertsfield highway revealed that travelers from opposite directions were forcibly put down from the vehicles, intimidated and severely harassed, while the vehicles’ operators’ funds were taken away.
However, the situation was brought under control by UNMIL while the effect of the situation remains on the victims. The violent situation has cleared the doubts that despite the presence of UNMIL, Monrovia still in the absence of well-organized and successful disarmament of belligerent force, still remain unsafe.
Some of the fighters whom I spoke with said they staged the violent protests in demand of the DDRR package promised to give them by the United Nations upon handing over their weapons.
According to the fighters, Mr. Jacques Paul Klein, UN Secretary General Special Representative to Liberia promised to give each of them US$300.00 in two installments, US$150 at discharge of weapons at cantonment sites and US$150 three months thereafter.
They said the amount excluded the provision to all ex-combatants of access to subsidized employment, vocational training and apprenticeship as well as educational support.
The combatants said they were moved by the offer by Mr. Klien, therefore, they decided to show-up in large numbers on the start of the DDRR but to their surprise, the UN envoy has failed to live up to his promise to give each US$150 upon the discharge of arms/ammunition.
“We staged the violent protests to expose Mr. Klein’s deceit and draw the international community’s attention to our plights" the fighters noted - threatening to abandon the DDRR program if they are denied funds.
During the start of the disarmament exercises, I saw hundreds of fighters walking away from the cantonment site deceptively, after news broke out that their colleagues who discharge their weapons were given few cups of rice, sugar, corn meal, instead of the money promise them.
At the program marking the commencement of the DDRR exercises, neither UNMIL Force Commander nor his deputy, Gen. Daniel Opende and Festus Okechuk Okonkwo was present. No reason was given for their absent from the activities.
However, prominent among those who grace the activities were the Chairman of the Transitional Government, Mr. Gyude Bryant, Mr. Klein, the Bishops of the Catholic and Methodist Churches, Former President Moses Z. Blah, top brass of the belligerent groups, except for LURD Chairman Sekou Conneh who is in Guinea.
Also present at the occasion were officials of government, representatives of the Boston-based Mano River Relief and Development Network (MRRDN), officials of UN agencies, relief and humanitarian NGOs as well as ex-generals of the various warring factions.
Meanwhile, the National Transitional Government of Liberia has promised to give each combatant US$75 upon discharge of weapons and additional US$75 after three weeks, while the balance US$150 will be given at the end of the DDRR exercises.
The latest move by the Gyude Bryant-led government has created more joy in the fighters and put the DDRR program back on good footing, as the fighters have vowed to go for the US$75.00 to enable them enjoy the Christmas celebration. Some of them have started asking for the exchange rate of the Liberian dollars to the US dollars. The rate is L$40.00 to US$1.00.
The DDRR program which has a budget of US$50 million is marked by unrealistic expectations, rumors and possible false information due to the failure of the UNMIL headquarters in Liberia to empower the local media to inform and educate the public of the entire exercises.
Important issues such as information dissemination is to help raise awareness on the entire DDRR program by both the print and electronic media has been very poor, while the DDRR office at UNDP has only ten staffers.
Another generic issue is that since Chairman Bryant named himself as the Chairman of the DDRR Commission, which Mr. Klein co-chaired and Dr. Jarbo as Executive Director, other members to the commission are yet to be named, but with all of this, the commission has started functioning.
According to documents release by the DDRR offices at UNDP in Monrovia, out of US$50 million, US$8,672,000 and 21,750,000 will be used for demobilization, training and empowerment; US$11,400,000 for reintegration, US$2,900,000 for child ex-fighters, while disabled ex-combatants, social reintegration and administration/support cost carried US$512,500, US$665,000 and US$2,444,800 respectively. Additionally, US$1,450,329 allocated for contingencies.
Liberia enjoyed relative stability and modest regress until the decade of the 1980s when a combination of wrong policy choices, and later the outbreak of full scale civil war in 1980, ruined the economy and completely reversed the course of socio-economic development.
The cessation of hostilities and subsequent elections in 1997, ushered in unprecedented enthusiasm and fresh hopes that the country was on its way to making sustained strides in the rehabilitation and recovery of its socio-economic infrastructure and the resumption of growth and development.
But the 1997 elections did not bring the anticipated growth and prosperity due to the renewed insurgencies by the rebels, the incipient peace broke down.
The war, which initially started in the northern part of Liberia, later engulfed the entire country and resulted into a complete halt of development activities and the reversal of political and economic prospects.
According to studies, Liberia economic growth remains sluggish averaging has than 50% of its pre-war GDP level; unemployment rate in the informal sector has risen up to 85%.
Liberia national debt recorded stands of at US$3 billion. Life expectancy is at 47.7 years, maternal mortality is estimated at 578/100,00; child mortality, 194/1000 live birth and infant mortality, 117/1000 respectively.