Not since Rwanda have we so cynically abandoned a people as in Liberia

A few weeks back I wrote that George Bush deserved credit for offering leadership on Liberia. I take it back word by word
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I wonder what has happened to the T-shirt man. He worked in a dark little room off President Tubman Street. There are mortars falling there now. He was a tall, broad man who laughed a lot. You notice people who laugh in Monrovia these days. When we asked him to make some T-shirts with the words "BBC TV", he agreed without hesitation. "Business is business my brother. War or no war you gotta get the living," he said.

The T-shirt man was as good as his word. The following morning we rocked up outside the office, and he was waiting with an armful of perfectly printed shirts. He didn't make a lot of money from us, but we promised to pass on his name to other journalists. I guess by now the least that has happened is his store has been looted.

I wonder too about Courage Samower. I met him in the Red Cross-run John F Kennedy hospital in Monrovia last week. The New Zealand nurses had just cut his hair, and the 18-month-old was fast asleep. His mother, Kebbe, stood by the bed looking out the window at nothing. I asked why she had called him Courage. It was because, she replied, of what was happening when she was pregnant with him. There was war and the fighting pushed them out of their home in the suburbs. She was sick all the time and had little food and no medicine. Kebbe didn't believe her baby would survive. But he did and she called him the first thing that came into her head. Courage.

After that the fighting got worse and the family has been on the move as the warlords battled for Liberia. Courage woke up and began to cry. He was frightened by the presence of a white stranger by his bed. Kebbe lifted him up tenderly and sat him on her lap. He placed his thumb in his mouth and was quiet.

Courage Samower has only one arm. The stump of the other limb is wrapped in new white bandages. There are tiny flecks of blood. A mortar shell landed in the refugee camp where the family was staying. Courage saw his aunt decapitated by the blast. Shrapnel severed his arm. Hot flying metal does the strangest things. A head taken off at the shoulders, an arm blasted clean off at the shoulder. And stomachs lacerated, and legs mangled.

I stood in the wards of JFK hospital and contemplated once more the frail tenderness of flesh. A soldier in a wheelchair rolled by shouting to himself. Mad or going mad, I thought. The Red Cross doctors worked quietly like the miracle workers they are. They are men and women of many nations - their chief is a Palestinian from Nablus, on the West Bank - and I wept for their goodness and bravery. They stayed in that terrible city even though they knew the mortars could fall on them, or that rebel soldiers could storm their compounds. In doing so they have saved some honour for the international community which has abandoned Liberia.

The refugees pile their dead in front of the US embassy for the second week. There is silence. The shells rain down on the unprotected. Silence. God only knows what rape and plunder is taking place as the criminal gangs battle for the city. But powerful men across the world are retreating into air conditioned indifference.

Not since Rwanda in 1994 have we so cynically abandoned a people. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, is said to favour intervention, but in public he stalls. Uncle Sam will give money and get some US contractors on the job to provide transport. The fighting and enforcing will be done by Africans. It is the bare minimum that President Bush could do but he's even having trouble publicly committing to this.

A few weeks back I wrote that George Bush deserved credit for offering leadership on Liberia. I take it back, word by word. Just as Bill Clinton betrayed Rwanda so now does George Bush fiddle while Monrovia burns. There is an interesting bit of family history here. In 1990 when Liberia was first pressing on American consciences, George Bush Senior put his African affairs specialist, Herman Cohen, on the case. It was Mr Cohen who after meeting with President Charles Taylor, and the psychotic Yomi "Prince" Johnson, an exiled faction leader, that he believed both men wanted to see "a truly democratic system and would co-operate in organizing that". Mr Cohen also uttered words that seem horribly familiar now, telling the world that America was adopting a "wait and see" attitude to Liberia.

So it goes on. The weakness and deceit. At least the Pentagon generals are more or less frank about it all. They don't want to go near Liberia. They say there is no strategic interest worth risking American lives for. But they do seem not to have heard the big talk of the last few years - the new American foreign policy that would challenge evil doers and despots and export the values of liberty and democracy to those who suffered in silence.

If the generals haven't got the message, then Mr Bush has no excuse. He was the one who talked in such grand terms. They no longer believe that in Liberia. Up until a few days ago they still clung to a belief in the righteous force of American power. But by now it has dawned on the fearful, huddled masses in burned-out buildings all over the capital ... Mr Bush wasn't talking about Africans trapped under tyrannical brutality. Instead he is about to send them the Nigerians!

Ask the Liberian people about the last time West African peace-keepers came. They robbed and plundered like desperadoes from the wildest days of the American west. And they are not too keen on respecting human rights. They may have helped save neighbouring Sierra Leone but at an appalling cost in arbitrary murder.

What will they do when they arrive? Once deployed they will effectively help to keep an indicted war criminal, President Charles Taylor, in power. I wonder if there is any precedent for such an action? It would be like invading Bosnia and keeping Radovan Karadzic in power.

Through weakness and indifference the international community has allowed Liberia to become a living hell. Now we are about to make things a great deal worse. The UN is blundering around without givingleadership; the regional powers such as Nigeria and Ghana have no sensible ideas to offer; and the US is galloping as far away as it can get. Will someone, somewhere, please draw up a plan for political and military action. Charles Taylor has no intention of stepping down, so as an indicted war criminal he should be arrested by the international community. This is simply what the logic of the law demands. The rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy are guilty of gross human rights violations, and their leaders should be indicted for the mortaring of civilian areas.

Only by turning Liberia into an international protectorate, à la Bosnia, can the country be saved. Send troops from many nations with a robust mandate. Not that I think there is a chance that will happen. Liberia does not matter enough. By now I think they have realised that in Monrovia.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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