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Liberian Capital Is Divided No More

After peacekeepers open a main bridge in Monrovia, residents seek food and family.

August 16, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — West African peacekeepers opened one of Monrovia's main bridges Friday for the first time since July, allowing thousands of cheering people who had been separated by fierce fighting to pour over the river in search of their loved ones on the other side.

The opening of the bridge also allowed food and supplies to flow freely between the two sides of this desperately hungry capital for the first time in more than six weeks.

In July, the insurgent Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy stormed the northern Monrovia district of Bushrod Island, capturing the seaport and the city's main industrial strip. Most of the capital's businesses are located in the area, as well as warehouses for U.N. programs and other nongovernmental organizations.

The bridge served as a kind of front line in the battle for the capital, with government forces setting up a checkpoint on one side and rebel fighters on the other, cutting the city in two.

On Thursday, as the rebels retreated under a cease-fire agreement, thousands of fighters and civilians looted shops and storehouses.

The stolen goods left the northern end of the city well stocked with cooking oil, wheat, corn and other supplies.

But on the south side of the river, Monrovia was short of essentials until the bridge opened Friday.

"We drained down," said Catherine Teah, who walked about six miles from the family home in southern Monrovia to fetch her sister-in-law Alice Smith from Bushrod Island, where Smith lives. "We had almost no food for one month."

Smith, 27, was grateful to see her family again, but she couldn't help noticing their prominent bones.

"They look bad," she said of her emaciated relatives.

More than 20 of Smith's family members share a tiny, dark shanty in a Monrovia neighborhood called Congotown. Smith gave her relatives sacks of split peas and buckwheat for the reunion feast.

Another sister-in-law, Theresa Goseuh, said that during the siege by rebel fighters, the family worked together to forage for cassava root, potato leaves and "kiss meat" -- or swamp snails. But it was never enough. The clan looked wan and sullen, and a few of the youngest children were quite ill. Goseuh's baby coughed pitifully and continuously.

Steven and Jamesetta Sackey and their four children were lucky enough to have fled their Bushrod home together during the fighting. They left home before rebels advanced on the territory, escaped over the river and lived in the New Jerusalem Church in Monrovia.

On Friday, they discovered that the rebels were still in their neighborhood, despite an agreement to withdraw from greater Monrovia.

The rebels chased the family members away before they could check on their home, telling the Sackeys they were protecting them from government soldiers who had been seen in the area.

In fact, many residents of the northern end of Bushrod reported that several government soldiers had come across the former rebel line and threatened residents for siding with the rebels. Several people said that government soldiers had stolen money from them.

Despite rumors of violence, however, several rebel fighters said there had been no exchange of gunfire between rebel and government forces.

For the most part, Monrovia remained relatively calm Friday. Rebel forces were still visible and armed, but they were subdued, and there were fewer of them. West African peacekeepers in the capital set up several new checkpoints aimed at containing the rebels, and U.S. Cobra helicopters buzzed overhead in a bid to intimidate them.

For the first time since mid-July, two U.N. ships sailed into port under the protection of U.S. Marines, who took over the port Thursday. The vessels carried high-protein biscuits, tarps for temporary shelters, blankets and other basic necessities. United Nations officials said distribution of the supplies could take place within a few days.

Despite the improved atmosphere in Monrovia, tensions remained high as the rebels' leader, Maj. Gen. Abdulla Seyeah Sheriff, threatened to return to the capital in four days if government soldiers continued to hassle Bushrod residents and rebel supporters.

But for most Liberians, Friday was a day of rejoicing and catching up with family members -- even for Augustine Gooding, 38, who left his wife and two small sons behind during the height of the fighting. A month ago, rebel mortar shells were pounding down around their tiny Bushrod home, and Gooding decided to go over the river to central Monrovia.

"I asked my wife to come," said Gooding, a soccer referee. "But she said the town wasn't safe. I said, 'I will take that risk.' " So he left his family behind and hustled away to live with friends across the bridge.

On Friday, Gooding returned home. His children ran to him and clung to his knees, but his wife, Cecilia Doe, was cool.

"I was angry with him," Doe said. "I was disappointed that my husband did not listen to me and went away from here. I did not like that, but now I am happy to receive him."

Doe took Gooding's bag inside the house, but she didn't give him a hug.

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