Pain and fear go on as the gunfire stops in Liberia

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The Independent Online

A carpet of tinkling brass bullet casings covered the bridge between government and rebel-held Monrovia. At the rebel end, the scene was worthy of Dante's Inferno.

Tottering buildings were scarred by grenade blasts and thousands of bullet holes. Intoxicated rebels roared up and down in battered pick-ups, with sirens screaming. A grinning soldier stood in the middle, his pants falling down and his backside exposed. Armed teenagers wearing wigs scattered looters with bursts of gunfire. A glow of heat emanated from a burnt-out warehouse. Five bloated corpses, their wrists bound and shot in the head, lay on the verge.

For the first time since the siege of Monrovia - dubbed "World War Three" by locals - began two weeks ago, reporters were able to cross the chaotic frontline yesterday.

The guns fell silent with the deployment of Nigerian peacekeepers - the forward force of a 3,250-strong West African mission. "We are on ceasefire," said Major-General Seyea Sheriff of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), standing near the frontline. "If they don't open fire, neither will we."

He said the key to peace was the resignation of President Charles Taylor, who has promised to leave office next Monday. But if he refused to go into exile, the guns would blaze again, he warned. "He must leave the country - that's the condition," he said.

Further into the Lurd-held neighbourhood, the sense of mayhem receded. Residents said life was difficult but clearly easier than across the bridge. In the bustling markets, food was abundant and cheap. A cup of rice cost five Liberian dollars compared with 20 times that much only a kilometre away, where thousands of people were starving.

Medical care, however, was abysmal. The local brewery served as the only hospital, and conditions were horrific. A dirty table in the middle of an open-air loading bay was the operating theatre. With few drugs or equipment, nurses struggled to save a flood of wounded. Nyeamah Williams, 24, had arrived minutes earlier. His arm torn open by a stray bullet, he grimaced as nurses sprayed iodine on to the gaping wound. More than 300 people had been treated like this in the past two weeks, said a junior doctor, Prince Weah. "We don't have forceps, clamps, needle holders, anything," he said. "We improvise."

The casualty toll was higher on the government side, where indiscriminate rebel shelling ruthlessly pounded neighbourhoods packed with cowering refugees. More than 1,000 people have died during the ongoing siege.

"It's not us," said Maj-Gen Sheriff. "We only hit military targets." But in their own territory, rebels seem to have treated civilians with some caution. Residents said that after an initial looting spree, they were left largely unbothered.

"At first the Lurd took everything," said Manmeet Singh, one of 24 Indian traders huddling in the ground floor of a boarded-up building. "But then they bring water and food so you can survive." Down the rutted streets, hundreds of people flooded out to cheer, dance and sing songs of peace mixed with praise for the rebels, such as "O Lurd, we like you".

"You see," said Sekou Fofana, a senior Lurd official, shouting over the din. "We don't intend to harm anyone. Our war is against Charles Taylor."

But the enthusiasm was mostly born of fear. Residents said they feared violent reprisals if the notoriously ill disciplined government troops were allowed to take their neighbourhood back.

"We are not praising Lurd because they are here," said Abraham Daniel. "But because last time they left, the government forces came and intimidated us, looted our places, raped our children and even threatened to kill us." He pleaded for Nigerian peacekeepers to come quickly, adding: "In their absence, Lurd should be here."

Across the bridge, government soldiers also welcomed the Nigerian deployment. Commander Cairo Poo-poo said: "There will be a hard feeling [with the Lurd] until the peacekeepers arrive. But when they come we will shake hands." Explaining his war name, he said that "you can smell me but you can't dodge me".

At Monrovia airport, Nigerian troops continued to arrive aboard UN helicopters. The West African force said it would enter Monrovia in six days.

Aid agencies hoped the ceasefire would allow them to rush desperately needed relief.

Success for the rescue mission hangs on Mr Taylor's next move. The South African President Thabo Mbeki said he had personal reassurances that Mr Taylor would leave "the same day or the day after" he resigns on Monday. Officials in the south-east Nigerian town of Calabar said preparations were being made to lodge him there.