Liberia faces growing crisis

The international faith community is struggling to bring relief and hope to Liberia.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 2, 2003



"The displaced are at the very end of their ability to cope."

—Charles Pitchford


As West African leaders continue to press for Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down, the international faith community is struggling to bring relief and hope to the war-torn nation.

The head of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Bishop Sumoward Harris, warned that his country is facing a humanitarian catastrophe because of the hesitancy of the international community to send a peacekeeping force to intervene in Liberia's civil war. "We have been crying for so long. Now it is time for the international community to come to our rescue," Harris said, addressing more than 700 participants at the 10th assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Winnipeg.

Peacekeeping troops are now on the way. West African heads of state carried a message that the first peacekeepers would deploy in Liberia on Monday and that Taylor, an indicted war-crimes suspect blamed for 14 years of conflict in the region, must leave by Thursday.

More than one million people are trapped in the capital city of Monrovia, and their lives become increasingly bleak and desperate, according to relief leaders. "The displaced are at the very end of their ability to cope," said Charles Pitchford, the Liberian representative of Lutheran World Federation World Service (LWF-WS). "Many older people are giving up and letting death take them from the indignity of living in the streets. As we are in the middle of rainy season, water is often collected as it runs off rooftops and used for drinking. Death by cholera and diarrhea is on the increase."

Many local chapters of national relief groups saw their response in Monrovia severely limited when their offices were made inaccessible by the fierce fighting all around them.

People are awaiting the arrival of the first contingent of promised Economic Community of West Africa States peacekeeping force on Monday. The United States has promised $10 million in logistical support for the West African peacekeepers. The U.S. is sending three warships with Marines to Liberia for what President Bush described as "limited assistance."

Mortars, rockets and gunfire hit Monrovia on a daily basis, often killing civilians who cannot escape the war violence that racks the nation. Many families are barred in their homes, afraid to leave for food or supplies.

Relief leaders have also described a severely traumatized people who have been displaced by war, have run out of food and water, and survive in an environment of constant fear and chaos.

As supplies have dwindled in Monrovia, food and fuel are being sold to residents at skyrocketing costs. Food prices have tripled, and hardly any businesses are able to operate in the city.

Faith-based groups are trying to provide both physical relief and a sense of hope for the future. Liberian church leaders have been meeting with a Church World Service (CWS) assessment team, and while continuing to press for outside intervention to secure a ceasefire, they are also calling upon Liberian church leaders and people to rebuild a peaceful society. They are also organizing within the Liberian Council of Churches for a massive, coordinated humanitarian relief effort of local churches and international church partners to respond to a humanitarian disaster so drastic that essentially no Liberian has been spared.

Fighting this summer has concentrated around Monrovia's three key bridges. Rebels since early June have fought to cross from the port to downtown Monrovia, the last stronghold of Taylor's government.

CWS has issued an urgent appeal to its member communions for the funds to provide local church partners in Liberia with the resources they need to meet the humanitarian needs of the populace once some modicum of security and stability is established.

Johnny Wray, who directs Week of Compassion, a giving program administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) urged people to pray for Liberians. "Our Liberian church partners continue to beseech us to pray for peace in Liberia and not to forget them," he said. Wray's denomination is one among many CWS partners appealing for financial contributions and prayers for Liberia.

Taylor has been repeatedly pledging to yield power since the rebel siege of Liberia's capital began nearly two months ago. He previously has said he would leave and accept an offer of asylum in Nigeria when the first peacekeepers arrive.

LWF-WS, a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, has joined CWS in assessing needs and planning distributions of relief supplies in Monrovia. LWF-WS and other ACT members and partners in Liberia will meet Saturday to coordinate their response. ACT is sending financial support to its members and partners to help them provide food and medicine to 4,000 displaced families in 15 church compounds in Monrovia.

ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response.

Before the fiercest fighting began, Lutheran World Relief shipped seven containers of health kits, newborn kits, clothing, bedding and medicines for its partners, including LWF and Phebe Hospital. The supplies were safely moved from the port and stored in warehouses in mid-July just before fighting all but paralyzed Monrovia. Supplies for more than 50,000 people who have fled their homes are ready for distribution as soon as the situation is safer.

Staff from the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Freetown, Sierra Leone, will also deliver supplies as soon as access to the area is possible.


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