Don't forget your flak jacket

Last year, Ben Anderson set off for a holiday in West Africa. First stop Liberia. One small problem: the country was in the middle of a revolution. Here he introduces the pimps, killers and child soldiers who made it a journey he will never forget

I am unusually alert when our plane touches down in Monrovia. Before it lands, I look through as many windows as possible. I've read everything I can about Liberia but all I see in my mind when I think about the country is young men with guns, wigs and sleeveless basketball shirts. I've seen footage of them capturing an enemy soldier, slicing off one of his ears, singing, laughing, and then cutting out his heart and eating it raw. It's October 2003, and those youngsters control 70 per cent of the country, and we are planning to visit them. The cameraman with me shot the heart footage and seems excited by what correspondents call "Bang Bang". I don't think I will develop this feeling.

I am unusually alert when our plane touches down in Monrovia. Before it lands, I look through as many windows as possible. I've read everything I can about Liberia but all I see in my mind when I think about the country is young men with guns, wigs and sleeveless basketball shirts. I've seen footage of them capturing an enemy soldier, slicing off one of his ears, singing, laughing, and then cutting out his heart and eating it raw. It's October 2003, and those youngsters control 70 per cent of the country, and we are planning to visit them. The cameraman with me shot the heart footage and seems excited by what correspondents call "Bang Bang". I don't think I will develop this feeling.

On one side of the runway are the UN soldiers, in a camp that looks like the set from M*A*S*H. On the other side, as the plane slows down and taxies toward the terminal, I see a group of large, smartly dressed women, singing and waving white handkerchiefs. Then a military band comes into view. They are confused and disorganised, as if our arrival hasn't been part of the script. Are they supposed to start playing now? Everyone in the plane appears equally confused and they look towards the eight seats in business-class to see who is there.

Then the plane starts inching forwards and the band and the singing women disappear from view. The VIP is on the next plane.

'Shit, I forgot to show you the mass grave," says our fixer on the way into Monrovia. "I'll show it to you on the way back."

The Lebanese hotel manager tells us he has no rooms to spare, despite the fact that we confirmed our reservations three times. There is nowhere else to go. Finally, he comes back with a set of keys that he says are for the Egyptian ambassador's old house. He feels a need to explain how he has come by the keys, but the need leaves him in seconds and he just points us to a young boy who will drive us to the house.

Outside, I recognise another Lebanese man from Freetown's airport the night before. Despite having tickets and reservations, we had both been told that there were no seats for us on an earlier flight from Sierra Leone to Monrovia. Pleased for each other to have made it, we shake hands enthusiastically. "My friend has just flown 50 Moroccan girls in," he says, becoming even more pleased, "beautiful girls, call me, I can get them very cheap." He hands me his card.

Monrovia is on a peninsula, and its northern tip is connected to the mainland by two bridges. Rebel forces worked their way down the country last year, and arrived at these two bridges * in July. They couldn't cross the bridges because government snipers sat in two high buildings on the other side. All they could do was aim their mortars and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at the high buildings. But rebel training doesn't go beyond loading and firing, so most shells missed their targets, and sailed past the snipers and into Monrovia, killing hundreds of civilians.

Every building on the northern side of the bridges has been hit, and many are destroyed. Old billboards have more holes in them than board, and we find a live RPG stuck in a tree next to the children's playground. Even the lampposts are full of holes, and many had been hit so many times they are now just stumps of shredded metal, sprouting up from the ground at regular intervals.

And Monrovia is the nice bit of Liberia, the stable bit. The only bit during our visit that is under full UN control. The rest of it is controlled by two different rebel groups. The Lurd (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) do most of the fighting and controls about 70 per cent of the country. Model (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) controls less than a third in the south-east.

The Rebels control their areas by placing checkpoints all along the major roads. They are often less than a mile apart, so even a journey from one village to the next can be slow, terrifying and expensive. The barriers usually consist of little more than a few oil barrels and a piece of rope or maybe a burnt-out car and wooden crates. I have read about one checkpoint where the rebels stretched human entrails across the road. Next to the checkpoints there is usually somewhere the staff can get some shade, and they are often irritated when you disturb them. Once you've stopped in front of the barrier, four or five boys will slowly emerge from under the branches of a tree or a piece of corrugated iron. There always seems to be at least one older boy, of about 16 or 17, who is in charge. Maybe control of the checkpoint is his reward for making it to his late teens. The other boys are often no more than 10 or 11, and they are so small that their AK-47s look ridiculous on them. Some even carry RPGs that are taller than they are: they have to wrap both arms around the barrel of the launcher and drag it along the floor.

It is the first time I have seen child soldiers and it fills me with disgust. I find it hard to accept that these kids have the power of life and death over me and anyone else driving along this road. Your instinct is to slap them, take away their guns and drive off. But you have to keep telling yourself that they could shoot you in the chest for fun, and would probably laugh as you bled to death on the road.

We drive through a dozen or so such checkpoints until we go to Tubmanberg, the Lurd HQ. When we arrive and get out of our Jeep, we see teachers delivering a huge portrait to the Lurd chairman, Sekouh Conneh, wearing a white suit, a benevolent smile, and with rays of light shining from behind his head. The teachers tell me that now the fighting is over they are hoping to teach some of the young combatants how to paint. I turn to a young boy next me and ask him if he'd like to learn how to paint like that, pointing to the portrait.

"I drive the truck with the big gun," he says, and looks at the floor.

One thing never discussed about child soldiers is how much fun they have, and this is the root of the problem. One kid takes me to see a huge gun on the back of a pick-up truck. "This is the Bogey Man," he says, "BO-GEY-MAN". He makes the noise the gun makes, motions with his hand to show something gliding into the air, towards the horizon. Then his hand drops and he shouts "BLAAAAM" fanning both his hands open to show an explosion. I haven't seen anyone so happy all week.

The idea is that these kids will gradually be disarmed and then sent back to school. Conservative estimates put the number of them in Liberia at 7,000. Charities put the figure at between 15,000 and 20,000. Some teachers have already quit because the kids still at school have become so crazy.

Even before the rebels attacked Monrovia last year, it can't have been much to look at. Despite a personal income said to have exceeded $100m (£60m), President Charles Taylor didn't even bother supplying electricity during his six years in power. Before Taylor, Samuel Doe ruled for a decade and presided over the 1980s worst economic performance in Africa. The few things that still work are leftovers from the days of the True Whig party, which ruled Liberia for 133 years, and whose members were descendants of the freed slaves who founded Liberia in 1847.

The land that became Liberia was sold to a group which called itself the American Colonisation Society. The local king who did the deal is said to have done so with a gun pointed at his head, and with no idea what the word "sale" actually entailed. This is commonly reported to have been a philanthropic gesture on the part of the Colonisation Society, done so that the freed slaves could go "home". It seems more likely, however, that the slave owners didn't want freed slaves wandering around their American home towns, especially as many of the slaves were their illegitimate children and could start * making all kinds of outrageous demands. And, of course, Liberia was nowhere near the home of the freed slaves' ancestors, who were almost all taken from Africa's interior. The first arrivals lasted six months, killed off by the indigenous population and local diseases.

The True Whig party's days came to an end in the early hours of 12 April, 1980, when Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, and 16 other soldiers entered the house of the then president William Tubman. The stories vary, but some claim that the 17 men disembowelled Tubman in his bed and threw his internal organs out the window for the dogs to eat. Doe, at 28, was the eldest member of the group, and promptly declared himself president. Thirteen other ministers were later executed on the beach, in front of the world's press.

Ten years later, Doe himself was executed by Prince Johnson, a rival of Charles Taylor. Doe was slowly tortured to death, an event that was filmed, including the cutting off of his ears and his testicles. The soundtrack is interrupted by demands for his private bank-account number.

When Taylor was kicked out last August, he was given a chartered plane for his family and possessions and delivered to a private compound in Nigeria. This marks some kind of progress.

It's October and any building still standing in Monrovia has become home to the thousands of families who had fled from the country into the capital during the war. Banks, ministries, the national football stadium and even the Masonic Temple, once used for ceremonies by the True Whig party, and feared by locals as a place of evil spirits, overflow with "internally displaced persons", or IDPs, as they are known.

Although most of the country is controlled by the rebels, there are still large units of government troops in the north, deserted by Taylor, isolated, and with a limited supply of food and ammunition. The rebels clearly smell blood, and are buoyant. There are daily reports of fighting. The UN agrees to let us fly with them on one of its first trips into this area.

Our trip is led by the UN's force commander in Liberia, Lieutenant General Opande, who is looking for a building that can be used as a base for the UN in the north. He has also arranged a meeting between government and rebel troops, whom he hopes will agree to establish a ceasefire zone. He is accompanied by 10 Ghanaian soldiers, two Special Forces soldiers from Canada, who are so heavily muscled and armed they looked like soldiers from a PlayStation2 game, and a few middle-aged reservists from Europe and the US. They include a Medieval history professor from Yale ("Sometimes you need to live some history rather than just teach it") and a rotund French soldier who doesn't see what is so funny about the fact that all French army knives include a corkscrew.

There are no buildings big enough or secure enough for the UN. As we drive from village to village, women and children run to the sides of the roads, waving and cheering. They think that the white Jeeps of the UN have come to save them. They don't know that we are just passing through. The first government troops we meet are as happy to see us as the civilians, and they all sing together, "No more war, we want peace." Just weeks earlier they were naming themselves things like "General Die Die", "Rambo" and "Prepared to Execute".

As we drive towards the meeting point, however, all we see are young men who try to look nonchalant as they stand by the side of the road or outside key buildings. They have clearly been told not to be seen with weapons. No one with us knows which side they are from. Everyone knows their weapons aren't far away.

We stop at a T-junction and General Opande gets out. There are hundreds of boys and they are no longer hiding their guns. We have reached the meeting point, and soldiers from both sides are standing on the same piece of road. The ones with weapons keep their distance but are close enough to show us, and the other side, what they have got.

General Opande starts telling off a group made up of troops from both sides for fighting. He shakes a few of them and says that they should be in school. One boy is so stoned he sways around on one leg with his arms outstretched, trying to stay upright. Another starts a drunken rant about how we are all brothers, all Africans, but he doesn't seem to mean it and Opande cuts him off, telling everyone that they have to establish a buffer zone between themselves. He starts waving his finger: "And if I hear you are fighting again, I will come back here..."

Everyone pauses for a second, including Opande, who seems to be stuck between what he is supposed to say and what he wants to say "...and take away your weapons."

Those who are sober enough to pay attention are momentarily stunned, and then they relax, savouring their incredible good fortune. The rebel leader has been building a huge spliff during Opande's lecture. He finishes it off and turns to his friend for a light. For now at least, there's nothing to fear from the UN.

We drive to a small town that is under UN control. People sell food in the streets, sound- systems blare, kids play football and everyone is happy and relaxed. Two days later, the boys here are fighting again. Eighteen are killed.

Ben Anderson travelled to Liberia as part of his series 'Holidays in the Danger Zone: The Violent Coast', which will be shown on BBC4 tomorrow and Tuesday at 9pm

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