Trapped by war, Liberia's adopted orphans wait for new lives in the US

Agatha Williams, a five-year-old girl with a shy smile, lives in a squalid Monrovia orphanage. She sleeps on a sodden mattress in a filthy room. Her skin is covered in scabies and her stomach is rumbling.

But she also has two sets of parents, one possibly dead, the other couple dying of worry.

Four years ago the violent currents of Liberia's civil war snatched away her birth parents. Nobody is quite sure what happened to them. Agatha was brought to the orphanage. But now a second set of parents awaits, more than 5,000 miles away, in a tiny cattle-ranching town in Texas.

Caught in the crossfire of an unforgiving war, she has no way of reaching them. "I want to go but the war is coming," she says.

Jeff Atkinson, an electricity meter reader, and his wife, Kim, started the adoption process last year. They found their new daughter on the internet, on a site called Angel's Haven. Social workers visited, court papers were filed. But then Liberia's civil war intervened.

For the past 12 days, rebel shells have pounded the seaport capital, killing hundreds of civilians. Stray bullets zing through the deserted streets. There is no way out.

"We feel trapped because there's nothing we can do. We want nothing more than to have our girl here with us," said Mrs Atkinson by phone from Dickens, a town of 250 people.

Agatha knows little of the couple, save for a thick file of adoption papers and a small photo of a couple in cowboy hats. On the far side of the Atlantic, they spend their time reading the news and on their knees praying.

"We are dealing with this through prayers and our faith in God. You can't get much higher than that," Mrs Atkinson said in a quavering voice.

Agatha is one of 13 children in the Hannah B Williams orphanage waiting for a ticket to the US. It is down the road from embattled President Charles Taylor's executive mansion. Rebel shelling has not yet reached its neighbourhood but living conditions are dire.

Pools of water drip through the roof into the sodden dormitories, where 150 children sleep on filthy mattresses. Scabies is widespread. The city's cholera epidemic knocks at the door. And two days ago, food stocks ran out.

Hannah Williams, an imposing woman who founded the orphanage in 1978, is at her wit's end. After a morning spent searching for supplies of rice, she returned empty handed and weeping. "The food is there but I don't have no money. It's too much for me, I can't stand it any more," she sobs, collapsing into a cracked plastic chair.

She has a pile of folders crammed with reports, certificates and images of the life that awaits the children in the United States.

The Carlson family of Lone Lake, Minnesota, sent three-year-old Patience Williams a folder of photos. They show a large suburban home, a shining sports utility vehicle parked in the drive, Stephen Carlson trimming the hedge, his smiling wife serving dinner.

In their adoption application the couple enthused about "learning and growing in our knowledge of Liberia". To prepare for Patience's arrival, they prepared Liberian meals and studied the country's traditions. But for now, all there is to know is war.

Another prospective parent, Karrie Grover of Helena, Montana, wept on the phone as she described her two adopted boys, William and Kamassa. "Please go there and tell them we are praying for them," she said.

Liberian pleas for foreign intervention may finally be answered. The forward team for a 1,300-strong force of West African peace-keepers landed in Monrovia yesterday and the US has sent more than 2,000 troops by sea, although President George Bush appears wary of committing them to onshore peace-keeping.

Barbara Taylor, a Girl Scout leader from Phoenix, Arizona, said: "Somebody needs to get in there with some backbone." The 57-year-old woman has already adopted two Chinese girls; now she is waiting for seven-year-old Dorothy Rubben. Like many US parents, Ms Taylor has written to President Bush, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and local politicians. "I don't know what else I can do," she said.

Even if there was a quick way out of Monrovia, another obstacle remains in the shape of American bureaucracy. The US embassy in Monrovia, which has been hit twice by shelling in recent weeks, has refused visas to the children.

Mrs Grover said: "At first the State Department said they would airlift them out. But then they had a big meeting and refused, saying they didn't want another Somalia."

The US embassy says it must investigate fully the children's cases "to make sure that they are genuine orphans" before granting any visas.

An embassy official said: "While we remain concerned for these children, the ongoing violence makes conducting investigations impossible." Meanwhile, the war presses ever closer. Winifred Ndebe has lived in the orphanage for most of her 13 years. No adopting parents are waiting for her.

She said: "Sometimes we hear the shooting and the rockets at night. They are fighting to come here now."

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