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A Glimmer of Hope for War-Torn Liberia

With their West African nation in shambles after five years of fighting, Liberians are now pushing harder for resolution

WITH serious conflict in Gaza, Goma, and Sarajevo, who cares about Monrovia? Yet the humanitarian challenge in Liberia deserves no less attention than the Middle East, Rwanda, or Bosnia.

To the extent that many Americans are aware of Liberia, some might recall from grade school its founding by freed United States slaves in the mid-19th century. The better informed may remember the outbreak of civil war in December 1989, the chilling massacre of civilians in a Lutheran churchyard, and a planned US intervention that never materialized, despite Liberian pleas.

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Today, Liberia is in total shambles. Each of seven factions claims territory and allegiance from some of the country's 2.5 million citizens. The war has claimed an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 civilian lives. More than half of those who lived within Liberia's borders are displaced.

Violence has followed an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 Liberians into neighboring countries, making Liberia's problems regional in nature. Within Liberian borders, West African efforts to keep the peace are unraveling. Even dogged assistance from local and international humanitarian organizations is at a standstill.

Given a pattern of collapsing states in Africa and of collapsing American post-election interest in foreign affairs, would not even the most guarded optimism for Liberia's future be foolish?

Three rays of hope brighten an otherwise bleak horizon. First, Liberians are tired of war and suffering. Meeting informally in Brussels last month with outsiders from the United Nations and private relief organizations, high-level Liberian officials, current and former, took full responsibility for their nation's plight - and for correcting it.

``Unless we address our problems,'' one said, ``we will have a dead country and a dead people.'' Liberians are fed up with a society in which ``an M-16 is worth more than an M.A.'' The impression they convey is that while their country is down, it is anything but out. Liberians welcome outside aid for urgent human needs and outside pressure to keep their feet to the fire.

That they are not alone in wanting change represents a second promising factor. President Jerry Rawlings of neighboring Ghana has brought the factions together in Accra to hammer out what many consider a last-ditch attempt to avoid total anarchy. West African contributors of troops to ECOMOG, a regional peacekeeping force, seem prepared to make major changes in a bold, yet stalled undertaking.

Third, donor governments, unhappy with the lack of results from their aid, are willing to try one last time - under new conditions. The European Union has $30 million to commit to basic services on a countrywide basis for Liberia's long-suffering population. The US seems willing to redirect funds already invested in African peacekeeping troops to ECOMOG forces.

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UN and private relief groups, after suspending activities in Liberia last month because of the prevailing insecurity and corruption, are prepared to restart efforts once fuller cooperation from the warring factions is assured. Their resumed efforts could not come soon enough, given reports of starvation up-country and widespread distress in the nation's capital.

Liberia has seen promising glimmers of hope before, realists will be quick to remind. By some counts, the last meeting convened by Ghana's president represented the 30th such encounter among the belligerents in five years of war. Progress from earlier sessions has been shortlived, with bloodshed and factionalism invariably resuming.

Yet a new calculus is now emerging. Liberians who want to turn the corner on violence number in the millions; those benefiting from the continued war, fewer than a hundred or two.

The sheer weight of such numbers, the extremity of the suffering of Liberians, and their passion for peace should be compelling. With power and greed rather than ideology or religion fueling the conflict, its resolution might even be more feasible.

If those factors are not enough in their own right, the implications for Liberia, the region, and the world of failing to halt the bloodshed and bind up its wounds should indeed be enough. When the history of a tragic period is written, the present moment may prove to have provided the last of numerous chances to do so. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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