Liberia has been in the grip of civil war for over a decade. Fighting between rebels and government forces that killed an estimated 200,000 people and forced more than half the country's 2.8 million population to flee their homes has intensified since 1998 in large parts of the country, displacing thousands of people. Lasting peace and stability in Liberia remained a pipe dream in 2003. Quite to the contrary, by mid 2003 there are enough facts to confirm that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making in Liberia.
The upsurge in fighting in 11 of Liberia's 15 counties, from February 2003, rendered about 70 percent of the territory inaccessible to humanitarian aid agencies, isolating many desperate IDPs from assistance and help. In March 2003 the WFP was assisting an estimated 270,210 people, 71 percent of whom were IDPs, and an estimated 190,855 people were registered in camps in various parts of the country (WFP, 14 March 2003). In May 2003, the UN stated that there were over 200,000 internally displaced persons in Liberia, spread over 19 camps, with 60 percent of them in Monrovia (UN DPI, 14 May 2003).
Since 1999, the country has become mired in yet more fighting - this time largely between Liberian security forces and armed insurgents in the north and the south of the country and even around the capital Monrovia. In March 2003, a new rebel movement (Movement for Democracy in Liberia, MODEL) appeared in the southeast, causing the fighting to spread to almost all parts of the country.
On 4 June 2003 the United Nations-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone had indicted Mr. Taylor for war crimes and issued an international warrant for his arrest as he was in Ghana attending peace talks with opposition forces (UN News Service 5 Jun 2003). However, the Ghanaian authorities let Taylor to go back to Monrovia. Since then, the resurgence of fighting by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) led to an increasingly chaotic and desperate humanitarian situation around the capital Monrovia while bringing violence in its suburbs and centre.
Background and causes of displacement
The internal displacement of civilians began in Liberia with the civil war that started in 1989. Charles Taylor, leading the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), launched an armed rebellion against the Samuel Doe regime in the north of the country. Fighting quickly reached the capital. In 1990 the Economic Community of West African States deployed a Nigerian-led peacekeeping mission (ECOMOG) to Liberia to restore order. ECOMOG's control did not extend beyond Monrovia, however, and the rest of the country was ruled by Taylor and other self-styled freedom fighters battling over the country's rich natural resources.
Four months after intense factional fighting and looting devastated Monrovia for a second time in April 1996, the four main Liberian warlords signed the fourteenth peace agreement since the outbreak of the war, providing for disarmament of the warring factions, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in 1997. Charles Taylor won a landslide victory in the presidential contest, winning the legitimacy he craved through the ballot box.
However, peace in Liberia was short-lived. In 1999 armed dissidents, believed to have crossed the border from Guinea, attacked the town of Voinjama in northern Lofa County (Guinea subsequently accused Liberian forces of entering its territory and attacking border villages). Intermittent fighting - largely between Liberian security forces and the newly-formed rebel movement known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) - spread and intensified, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. The situation was however complicated by reports of in-fighting between various pro-government militias in the region, and military claims on all sides were often unverifiable. The conflict was centred in the gold and diamond-rich area close to where the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea meet.
In December 2001, government forces launched a fresh offensive when the rebels got within 60km of the capital. Fighting followed fleeing populations from one temporary location to another. At the end of January 2002, the UN was 'deeply concerned' about reports of the forced displacement of some 10,000 IDPs from the temporary camp at Sawmill, who joined thousands of other newly displaced persons in Klay Town near Monrovia. The government restricted aid agencies to the greater Monrovia area, while blocking IDPs from entering the capital, where many people who had been previously displaced continued to shelter in unfinished and war-damaged buildings.
Further attacks on Klay Town, less than 50km from the capital, prompted President Taylor to declare a state of emergency in February 2002, restricting movements and requiring exit visas for everyone leaving the country, including UN staff. Sceptics believed that Taylor's government may have state-managed the crisis in order to 'create a humanitarian crisis on the doorstep of Monrovia that would draw the eyes and the sympathy of the world' (Reuters, 14 February 2002). President Taylor had long complained that he could not properly address the security situation because of a UN arms embargo.
Sporadic but intense fighting continued throughout 2002, causing almost continuous displacement. Villages and IDP camps in Lofa and Bong counties were emptied and reportedly looted by both government and dissident forces, forcing many civilians to seek refuge in camps around Monrovia (OCHA IDP Unit, 21 May 2002).
Since the beginning of 2003 heavy fighting between Liberian government troops and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group has spread from western and northern regions to the southwestern Atlantic port of Robertsport (IRIN 13 Feb 2003). But since April 2003 the Liberian government has had to fight on two fronts, also against the MODEL rebel group that has captured large parts of southeastern Grand Gedeh, as well as the southern port town of Harper and the southern town of Plebo forcing thousands of dispossessed civilians to flee (AFP, 20 May 2003). The rebels carried out "reprisal killings" in River Gee and burned down a wood processing plant amid widespread looting in the area (AFP, 20 May 2003). More Liberians have been displaced in Toe Town (ACT, 12 March 2003). MODEL has forced civilians to flee as a consequence of their capture of Liberia's main timber export port at Harper and the town of Plebo, while others have been fleeing the south east for other parts of the country, especially Rivercess, Grand Bassa and Montserrado Counties to seek safety from the ongoing fighting (AFP, 29 Apr 2003)
The crisis in Ivory Coast is another factor adding complexity to the conflict in Liberia. In addition to the LURD rebel group which is reportedly supported by Guinea, the emergence of MODEL a militia in Ivory Coast loyal to the Ivorian government, has since February 2003 launched attacks on IDP camps on the border with Liberia (ACT, 12 March 2003).
As LURD launched violent attacks against the government troops around Monrovia since the indictment of Mr. Taylor by the Special Court in Sierra Leone, new movements of IDPs from camps outside the capital to the centre of Monrovia have been reported (UNHCR, 10 June 2003).
Humanitarian situation of IDPs
The worsening humanitarian situation of IDPs has been the most pressing concern since the renewal of heavy fighting at the beginning of 2003. In March 2003 violence sparked fresh waves of internal displacement. Armed militia set their sights on relief camps and transit centres stopping the distribution of food to refugees and IDPs in camps near Monrovia, according to WFP. As the fighting has continued to rage, both government troops and insurgents in Liberia have been targeting IDP camps. In Montserrado county an IDP camp was targeted and 1000 IDPs were abducted by LURD rebels (UN OCHA 5 April 2003).
IDPs are also forcibly conscripted. Young and able-bodied IDPs at Jah Tondo Displaced Camp (17 km west of Monrovia) were recruited by armed militias to fight alongside government fighters (UNHCR, 17 February 2003). The fear of conscription is all too evident in the camps, as this practice has become more and more widespread. IDPs from the Wilson Corner, Water-In-The Desert and Risks camps, which are close to Jah Tondo, have also been harassed and intimidated, and recruited by militias who sometimes regard IDPs as "suspected rebels" (IRIN 19 Feb 2003).
Widespread fighting in the northern, western and eastern areas of Liberia cut off those most in need of humanitarian aid. (UN OCHA, 9 April). Insecurity has led to the inaccessibility of around 70 percent of the territory (UN News, 5 May 2003). Aid agencies have been seriously concerned about the protection of IDP camps and humanitarian personnel. In May 2003, the UN and other aid agencies asked the government to provide security guarantees before humanitarian relief could resume smoothly (UN News, 5 May 2003).
While the Liberian government has the legal obligation to protect IDPs, it is failing to do so. The recurrent and increased movement of populations coupled with the real threats posed to the lives of humanitarian workers has made it increasingly difficult for protection activities to be effectively undertaken (UN OCHA 5 April 2003).
Since the beginning of June 2003 the situation is worst. The resurgence of fighting by LURD has pushed thousands of frightened displaced people to flee camps outside the capital to move into Monrovia in search of shelters (MSF, 6 June 2003). These displaced persons crowded into spontaneous camps that have sprung throughout the capital. According to an inter-agency assessment mission, an estimated 30,000 people are "living under extremely difficult conditions" in the Samuel Doe sports stadium. As other empty spaces and buildings in Monrovia also teemed with people, 19,000 were concentrated in four school compounds (UN New Service, 12 June 2003). There is an urgent need for water and sanitation, food, shelter, medical services and protection if an outbreak of epidemics wants to be prevented. The WFP that had been forced to suspend deliveries to around 115,000 IDPs in camps around the capital is calling upon the parties to open a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to be delivered (UN News, 10 June 2003).
Humanitarian response and constraints
International scepticism of the Charles Taylor administration has remained high since the 1997 elections. Taylor's government has been accused of increasing human rights violations at home, as well as backing armed insurgencies in neighbouring countries. The UN Security Council tightened an arms embargo on Liberia in March 2001 to curb arms trafficking to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, and two months later imposed further sanctions, including travel restrictions on senior government officials and a ban on diamond exports. In May 2003 the Security Council renewed the sanctions and placed a 10-month ban on the import of Liberian timber. Taylor is also accused of war crimes in Sierra Leone. His indictment by the Special Court in Sierra Leone is another source of scepticism for the international community.
As a result, funding for Liberian humanitarian programmes has been extremely poor. In May 2003, only 20 percent of the 2003 UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for US$ 42,740,007 million was funded . At a time when the humanitarian situation on the ground is deteriorating and fighting has spread to at least 11 counties in Liberia and right into Monrovia, the lack of resources has forced humanitarian actors to search for the most cost-effective ways of delivering assistance. This includes responding to the most urgent needs of beneficiaries through the diversion of resources from other programmes (UN OCHA, 3 June 2003). International humanitarian operations are still hampered not only by a lack of resources but also by the worsening situation in the country that leads to the lack of access to many areas including the capital. The remaining international staff of aid agencies has been evacuating Monrovia, leaving Liberian IDPs with little assistance (UNHCR, 10 June 2003)
Only a serious involvement of the international community in the peace process to find a political solution or a cease-fire could prevent a humanitarian disaster in Liberia.
The country profile includes complete reference to the sources and documents used.