OF ALL the Liberian war refugees who had crammed into St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, few appeared less fearful than a little girl named Patience Nya. She seemed a picture of calm in a sea of human terror.
Patience was about 7 years old, a skinny child in a worn red dress who interrupted an interview I was conducting with her mother to ask if I knew Michael Jackson, the American pop star who remains something close to a deity in Africa.
Amid the stifling heat and noise on that June day at St. Peter's, where more than 3,000 civilians had sought safety from the marauding thugs of the Liberian Army, the girl's guileless question provided a moment of welcome relief and a much-needed perspective on a savage civil conflict. In a nation where human life seemed to be losing value with each passing day, the children were a vivid reminder that the lives of Liberians need not be fraught with such pervasive evil, anarchy and war. As terrified adults beseeched foreign strangers for help, Patience -- and indeed many other refugee children at the church -- were going on with their lives as if little had changed, playing pickup games of tag and soccer in the crowded St. Peter's compound. Clearly they were simply too young to understand the depth or meaning of their parents' fear.
I told Patience that, no, I didn't know Michael Jackson.
Undeterred, she breathlessly named a few of her favorite songs as she skipped after me with several giggling friends during my rounds of interviews with other refugees.
One night a few weeks later, a squad of men thought to be Liberian soldiers broke into the church. Armed with machetes, knives, cutlasses and M-16 rifles, they shot and butchered more than 600 refugees in a five-hour orgy of violence. The killers left bodies scattered throughout the church, many of them slumped over walls and window sills. Among the dead were a number of young mothers with babies still strapped to their backs.
The mass murder typified Liberia's civil war, in which base opportunism by would-be rulers and tribal hatred by every warring side far outweigh any political or ideological concerns. Most of the victims at St. Peter's were, like Patience, members of Liberia's Gio or Mano tribes; the killers were thought to be members of the rival Krahn ethnic group that dominated the then-ruling government.
To this day, I don't know if Patience, her mother Lydia Nya or her friends survived the horror of that July night.
But I do know that no matter who wins this sickening war, which has killed thousands of innocents and produced an estimated half million refugees so far, Liberia likely will need a very long time to recover. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine the process of recovery even starting until the nation's deeply tormented and traumatized civilians feel reasonably secure under new and more humane leaders and no longer need to fear their own countrymen.
Next weekend, more than 80 heads of state, including President Bush, will gather at the United Nations to discuss issues indirectly related to the suffering in Monrovia. The two-day conference, organized by the United Nations Children's Fund, will focus on "universal problems affecting the world's children," including war, malnutrition, education, drugs, homelessness and the impact of such evils as AIDS, child labor and child exploitation. The conference comes at a time when nearly 40 countries, including a dozen in Africa, have ratified a treaty recognizing children's human rights, the first of its kind in the world.
In many ways, the UNICEF summit could not be timelier -- particularly for sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest and least developed region on earth. The world's children continue to die by the millions each year of malnutrition and preventable or treatable diseases and illnesses such as measles and diarrhea. These problems are especially severe in Africa, where the crisis is exacerbated by heavy debt burdens and by foreign lenders' demands for sharp government cutbacks in spending on health, education and other social programs.
The statistics are depressing. Africa suffers from more civil conflicts than any other region in the world and holds by far the most refugees -- 30 million and growing. More than 45 percent of African children never gain access to formal educations. Infant mortality here averages 150 for every 1,000 live births, the highest rate in the world. For the African babies who do survive, the future is far from promising: Africa's average annual economic growth rate of 1.4 percent between 1970 and 1985 was barely half the annual rise in population, a shortfall that continues virtually unabated.
Such problems certainly merit the attention of world leaders. But the UNICEF summit may prove just as noteworthy for the issues that likely won't be discussed. Chief among these is the degree to which poor political and moral leadership by some of the very presidents in attendance only compounds regional problems. Thoughtlessness, incompetence and willful brutality are not listed as agenda items, but these human failings -- regularly exhibited by many of Africa's leaders -- certainly play profound roles in damaging the lives of millions of children and their parents here.
Among the 19 African heads of state who have promised to attend the New York conference are a couple of the continent's more notable dictators whose political decisions have caused extreme divisiveness and arguably as much human suffering in their countries as any disease.
Gen. Omar el Bashir, president of Sudan, is one of those scheduled to be in New York. More than a year after seizing power in a military coup, the repressive Sudanese ruler is leading a charge to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in his multi-religious East African nation, thus increasing political tensions and inflaming volatile ethnic rivalries in Sudan's five-year-old civil war between the northern government and southern rebels. The human-rights group Africa Watch estimates that 500,000 civilian Sudanese have died of starvation, warfare and tribal killings since 1986.
Mohamed Siad Barre, the octogenarian leader of Somalia, also plans to attend the summit. Among the more notorious decisions of his 20-year rule was a 1988 order for his air force to bomb the northern Somali city of Hargeisa, heartland of the opposition Isaak clan. The widespread bombing of houses, schools and markets destroyed the once-prosperous city and killed thousands of civilians. In a subsequent reign of terror by the Somali Army, hundreds of suspected rebel sympathizers were executed. Siad Barre's war, which now has claimed an estimated 60,000 civilian lives and spawned 500,000 refugees, goes on with no end in sight.
Similarly, it was not measles, malnutrition or poverty that caused the suffering and deaths of an unknown number of civilian men, women and children in the little town of Ghinda in the rebellious northern Ethiopian region of Eritrea earlier this year. Last year at this time, Ghinda was home to 20,000 Eritreans who lived in makeshift mud huts and tents at a camp for refugees displaced by the 30-year civil war. Last fall, children by the hundreds swarmed and cheered a group of U.N. workers and foreign reporters who visited the camp. But in February, yet another round of mass killing broke out between the rebels and government forces, and thousands of additional lives have been lost. The main front between the two armies -- and the focus of great destruction -- was the refugee camp and town of Ghinda.
While the leaders of some of Africa's poorest nations -- Benin, the Central African Republic, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Mali, Rwanda, Togo, Uganda and Tanzania -- will attend the New York summit, no one is listed to speak on behalf of the children who died at Ghinda or the ones who once played in the compound at St. Peter's church in Monrovia.
Soviets attending the conference are not likely to speak about the estimated $1 billion worth of arms Moscow bestowed on the harsh regime of Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam during the last decade, just as President Bush -- who is expected to address the gathering -- is not likely to dwell on the more than $1 billion in military aid that Washington provided the irresponsible governments of Somalia, Sudan and Liberia during roughly the same period. To fully assess the grim results of gun-peddling and foreign competition on the continent, one need not look farther than Angola and Mozambigue, where millions of children remain displaced, crippled and orphaned after years of civil war, aided and abetted by Americans, Soviets, Cubans and South Africans. It remains to be seen how intently such foreign adventurism and its effects on African children will be discussed or debated by the leaders in New York.
Finally, it's highly doubtful anyone at the UNICEF summit will dare to address the extent to which half-witted economic policies and official corruption in Africa retard human development. Certainly many thousands of oral rehydration kits to treat diarrhea could be bought for the hundreds of millions of dollars in emeralds, diamonds and other rare minerals annually smuggled -- often with official sanction and complicity -- out of Zambia, Zaire and Sierra Leone and sold on world markets, off the books, with precious little material benefit to the people of those countries.
One also wonders how much more corn and grain could have been grown for the children of Ethiopia and Tanzania if their leaders hadn't pursued reckless agricultural policies and traumatic peasant relocation schemes that provided no incentives to farmers and inexorably led to a sharp decline in farm production throughout the 1980s.
In some ways, the silence about these issues at the New York summit may resound louder than all the speeches.
One world leader who was expected to attend the summit was Samuel K. Doe, the former president of Liberia who was mortally wounded by rebel troops during a frenzy of killing in Monrovia last week. It was Doe's 10-year reign of corruption, his ruthless murders of opponents and his politics of tribal divisiveness that eventually led to the whirlwind the children of his country are now reshaping. His absence in New York -- indeed, the absence of any shred of government in Liberia -- should represent a timely, object lesson of moral failure for many of Africa's leaders, those who attend the summit as well as those who stay at home.
Neil Henry is The Washington Post's East Africa correspondent, based in Nairobi.