Hungry Liberians Break Blockade

Thousands of people gather at the bridge leading to rebel held territory, wanting to cross, in Monrovia, Liberia, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003.
Desperate for food, tens of thousands of civilians broke through barricades on Monrovia's front-line bridges Friday, reuniting Liberia's war-divided capital after 10 weeks of rebel siege.

Carrying empty sacks, baskets and even wheelbarrows on their heads to tote back food, throngs poured across from the cut-off government side of the city to reach stockpiles of rice, oil and other vitally needed goods. U.S. Marines and West African peacekeepers stood guard as the first ship carrying aid docked at the heavily shelled port.

Elated, women sang gospel songs as they surged across bridges littered with bullet casings and shrapnel to find food for their families.

One who'd already made the trip stopped to give bags of raw cornmeal to a pressing crowd of hungry children.

"I haven't eaten in four days," said one of the children, 14-year-old Soleh Fando, scooping up the raw meal by the handful and shoving it into her mouth.

All around, men and women embraced loved ones separated by the deadly siege, which killed at least 1,000 civilians.

In the refugee-crowded shantytown of Blamo Town, Musu Daffah, 30, dropped a bowl of cornmeal she was mixing and ran, screaming and crying, into the arms of 24-year-old sister Memma, who'd survived repeated mortar attacks in the government-side of town.

Breaking of the barriers between government- and rebel-held sides followed President Charles Taylor's resignation and departure from Liberia on Monday under international and rebel pressure.

Rebels, keeping their word to pull out when Taylor fell and peacekeepers deployed, withdrew from the city on Thursday, opening the port and its wealth of goods from commercial and aid warehouses. Aid workers hope to bring in three more tons of food from a waiting ship over the weekend.

U.S. forces moved in as well, a 200-strong deployment landing by helicopters at Liberia's main airport Thursday to take some of the pressure off the still-building, 11-day-old West African peace mission.

Starvation had built on the government side since rebels seized the port, following a July 19 offensive aimed at ousting Taylor, a former warlord blamed for 14 years of bloodletting in once-prosperous Liberia.

Rebel attacks on the city had killed well over 1,000 civilians since June. The true toll is likely far higher, but impossible to calculate. Blocked from cemeteries by fighting, residents had little choice but to gather the bodies of friends and strangers and slip them into marshes or bury them in Atlantic beaches ringing the city.

Residents had visibly wasted by the day, with markets offering little but harvested flower leaves and spiny snails to eat. Babies whose mothers lacked milk grew skeletal.

West African peacekeepers, trying to control the chaos, had planned to open the front-line bridges later Friday.

But waiting crowds filling the streets rushed the bridges soon after daylight, overrunning razor-wire barricades.

"Nobody opened the bridge. They just overpowered us," Pvt. Moses Peter of Nigeria, a peacekeeper, said.

Crowds raised their hands as they pushed pass the peacekeepers, showing they had no weapons.

Many of those pouring across were also searching for family members.

Philip Seh, an unemployed electrician, hadn't seen his wife, three children or brother on the rebel side since July 19. Seh had crossed into central Monrovia that day to look for work, and was trapped when rebels began their siege.

"I heard my house was hit by rockets, and I've not heard from my family. I need to check to see if they're all right," Seh said, pushing across.

Residents gawked at the bullet holes and shell craters riddling buildings around the bridges.

"Oh, my God," said Dexter Prieyoe, a government immigration official. "It looks like the shelling was worse on their side than it was on ours."

Business people returning to warehouses on the rebel side found them empty, their goods carted off by rebels and civilians in what had grown to a frenzy of pillaging.'

"I've lost everything," said Michael Oliseh, who found the rag-tag rebel fighters had made off with his stores of cosmetics, sandals and other goods for sale.

"People are celebrating over looted goods. But now what will I do?" Oliseh said.

"What, do you want us to starve?" another man asked, passing by him.