Not a night or day passes that Marilyn Tiah doesn't cry. She can't study. She can't sleep. She can't eat without thinking about her family.

Her parents, five sisters and five brothers are in Liberia, a West African country ravaged by civil war. Telephone lines are down; there is no mail service and, unlike the Persian Gulf War, only occasionally is there a television or newspaper report. The last time she heard from her family was in April.

"Every time I pour a glass of water, I wonder if my mother or sisters or brothers have a glass of water," said Tiah, her voice faltering, as she spoke from her Beltsville apartment. "Every time the gulf war comes on TV, I turn it off. People don't understand. It's horrible. You don't understand war until it comes so close to you."

While Americans are transfixed by images and sounds from the Persian Gulf War, the estimated 2,500 Liberians in the Washington area are left to scramble as best they can for news about their war and to wonder why the United States hasn't been as involved with their country as it is in the Middle East.

"Our war is not on TV, so people have just forgotten about us," said Moijama Fofe, 30, of Arlington. "There is still dying in our country, but no one knows that."

The Liberians here spend hours on the telephone sharing what information they receive from relatives who have escaped to neighboring countries. Whether it is at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria or the Kendejah club and restaurant in the District, Liberians have spent much of the past year comforting and encouraging each other.

"If there was just a way to know who's alive, who's dead, who's well and who's sick," said Tiah, 23, a student at Prince George's Community College. "But all we can do is wait . . . . Believe me, I don't know how I have been handling this. I wake up shaking and have nightmares. I was in school last semester but I did terrible. I studied just two times. I couldn't concentrate. This has been the worst year of my life."

The civil war began in late December 1989 and has devastated Liberia, a nation with strong historical ties to the United States. The United States has been the largest contributor of relief funds, but local Liberians say America should have acted as a mediator to help resolve the war.

A West African peace-keeping force is monitoring a cease-fire signed in November by the three warring factions.

The country was founded in the 1820s as a settlement for freed slaves. The American Colonization Society purchased the land and sponsored trips, and eventually 15,000 black Americans arrived. The first elected president of the country was Joseph Jenkins Roberts, born of slave parents in Petersburg, Va. In 1847, the country became an independent republic.

Liberians have maintained close ties to the United States, propelled not only by history but also by their language, English. Many Liberians, like Tiah, come to the United States to attend college. Some choose to remain, and it is not unusual for Liberians to have relatives in both countries, or relatives who have married Americans.

Bernadette Pyndell, born in Liberia, was adopted by a U.S. diplomatic family and has spent her years in both countries. Last year, her parents called her from the United States to repeat grave reports they picked up from the news.

Finally, she took their advice and left in June. Pyndell, 39, and her 3-year-old daughter, Victoria Lea-Mari, arrived here with only what they could stuff into two suitcases.

"You're allowed one suitcase apiece, and you figure out how much of your life you can get in a suitcase," said Pyndell, who is a manager at Washington Apartments in Northwest.

Because of the connections between the two countries, Liberians believed the United States would aid their country just as it has aided Kuwait.

"Now people are dying of starvation and little children {are} dying of disease," Tiah said. "So when you need help, you think America will come to help. Even though it was a civil war, I think there was something they could have done."

She began to sob. "They took the foreigners and Americans and left. They send troops to other people's countries; they do things to help other countries. We are Africans, but we are people too."

Fofe, who sent her 2-year-old daughter to live with her parents in Liberia while she attended Southeastern University here, said she has not heard from them or the rest of her family since her brother called June 2.

"I don't know if they traveled with my address or phone number," Fofe said. "I wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I'm dreaming the rebels are coming and my family is in the woods, or we are all running. All I can do here is cry."

She was sobbing.

Pete Howell was evacuated from Liberia, but ended up in anguish here, where he worries about his 80-year-old mother. He and his wife, employees of the U.S. Embassy, had to leave hurriedly July 2, after being warned that rebels might attack the compound and take hostages.

"I have to find out what happened to my mother and my house help, his wife and their two children," said Howell, who lives in Silver Spring. "I sent word by a friend to let them know we did not abandon them. Every day, it's on my mind. I can't rest until I know they are well."

While his wife has gone to Chad to work as a consultant, Howell, 45, works part time at a department store. Both save money with one purpose in mind: "I will definitely return to Africa soon to search for my mother and my friends," Howell said.

Matilda Morris Woods, 40, has sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews who were caught in the war. One of her brothers escaped to Ghana, suffering from gunshot wounds, she said. And her son escaped too. But she knows little of the others.

"My mother is here with me, but she is not well," said Woods, who lives in Arlington. "She's about 70. She sits and worries and cries and her blood pressure goes up. It's very hard. We don't see nothing on TV. We don't hear no news. It's confused my whole life."

She began to wail. "Liberia was a wonderful, beautiful country. I ask America to open a way to let me bring my family here. In church I pray. America is at war, but their children are going to school. All the schools in Liberia are destroyed. Will our children be ignorant?

"When we pray, we don't only pray for Liberia but for our sisters and brothers going to the Persian Gulf. I pray for peace. I know what war is like."