UN gets second chance to disarm Liberia

The United Nations tried for a second time on Thursday to disarm Liberia’s estimated 45 000 combatants, hoping that a five-month public awareness campaign will pay off and help the West African state take a giant step towards lasting peace.

UN peacekeepers operating in and around the central town of Gbarnga, a stronghold of the main rebel organisation Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), began relieving fighters of their weapons and ammunition early on Thursday morning.

By midday, according to UN Mission in Liberia (Unmil) spokesperson Margaret Novicki, a team of Bangladeshi peacekeepers had already processed 255 rebels, five more than their daily quota.

Hundreds more combatants had lined up to hand over their weapons.

“It is going very well, the combatants are being very cooperative,” she said from the capital, Monrovia. “There have been no security incidents.”

Unmil considers disarmament pivotal to efforts to reconcile Liberia after 14 years of nearly relentless war that ended in August last year with a power-sharing pact and the flight into exile of former president Charles Taylor.

The accord mandated that all three warring factions—Lurd, its Côte d’Ivoire-supported offshoot, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (Model), and Taylor’s armed forces—disarm under a program costing about $50-million.

On Tuesday the campaign will kick off in the port city of Buchanan and five days later in Tubmanburg, from where Lurd launched its offensive on Monrovia in early 2003.

The staggered start is a precaution in view of December’s disastrous launch, when thousands of fighters flooded a lone cantonment site just outside of Monrovia, overtaxing the understaffed UN mission that had arrived just two months earlier.

Dissatisfied with the incentive package of $300, food rations and vocational training, fighters ran riot in the streets of Monrovia for three days, leaving at least 12 dead. The campaign was aborted after just a week.

Mindful of the confusion and misinformation that conspired to sink the campaign in its early days, Unmil has since bombarded radio airwaves and blanketed villages with cartoon flyers and posters explaining the disarmament process.

A travelling song-and-dance revue, replete with skits, musical numbers and a comedian known as Boutini, also toured the Atlantic coastal nation of 3,3-million for eight weeks to promote disarmament.

The musical show has been a “very effective way” to communicate information to both the civilian and fighting populations, Novicki said.

Combatants, too, have gotten in to the musical act, she added, lending their voices to a bittersweet tune entitled That’s the Way Life Goes.

Concerns about the success of the programme continue to trouble many in Liberia, especially as the country remains volatile and few communities have an infrastructure adequate to support even civilian populations, let alone hundreds of newly disarmed fighters who know nothing but combat.

In a report released this week, the Britain-based NGO Oxfam said some civilians were resentful that former fighters were being compensated and provided with skills training while they were struggling to survive.

Others expressed fears that without supervision some of the young combatants would easily return to arms; still others expressed reluctance to welcome soldiers back into their communities.

Leaders of the three warring factions have also complained that their troops were unlikely to be offered adequate training that would make them assets to their communities.

“The UN and others must ensure that our fighters are well taken care of and registered for vocational and skills training,” General Roland Duo, a senior commander in the dismantled armed forces of Taylor, was quoted as saying by the UN news agency Irin.

“With this they would not focus their minds on returning to war.”—Sapa-AFP

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