As a veteran observer of refugees in Southeast Asia, I was prepared to see more suffering when I went to West Africa to assess conditions for Liberian refugees. Like almost all refugees, the Liberians brought little with them except tales of horror -- the kind of atrocities I had not encountered since listening to accounts of Cambodian refugees who fled the murderous Khmer Rouge regime more than a decade ago.
Sometimes the terror in Liberia is random: villages burned, inhabitants massacred. Sometimes the terror is dreadfully focused, as in the instance of a young woman who told us how her brother had pleaded for her life, saying to take his instead; his captors obliged, killed him before her eyes and then let her go on to a lifetime of nightmares.
I found two things astonishing about the Liberian situation and its refugees -- the hospitality of neighboring countries and the apparent willingness of the United States and the international community to tolerate continued violence in Liberia, which indiscriminately generates more dead, more wounded and more displaced.
The problem is large and growing -- more than half a million Liberians have fled to the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. Counting those displaced inside Liberia, half of the country is homeless, which may be the current world record for displacement.
Yet there are no refugee camps. Hospitality for those who manage to flee across the border is given by villagers in neighboring countries. To see this personal generosity is deeply moving -- an extraordinary willingness of those who have little to share with those who bring nothing. In effect, the villagers were the sole international donors to Liberian refugees until the slow-moving relief machinery began to respond months after the first refugees fled.
The advantages of living in a village environment instead of confinement in a refugee camp are great. Village life permits dignity and freedom of movement, not possible in the confinement of a camp and at a much lower cost. The refugees may be poorer than those in Southeast Asia, but their daily existence is immeasurably better. It is now past time for the international community to reimburse the front-line village hosts. Yet the rice and other food now finally being distributed in these villages goes to refugees only.
An international appeal for aid to some 200,000 villagers in Guinea to replenish their food supplies has received only scant international support. One hopes that the United States will lead the way in generating the overdue response to this appeal.
If it is time to recompense the villagers of the neighboring countries. It is also time to encourage an end to the fighting in Liberia. Even before the Gulf crisis the United States apparently decided to sit on the sidelines rather than seek a settlement in the Liberian civil war.
There is bitterness among the Liberian refugees toward all factions, but there especially is grief that the United States -- long a special patron of Liberia's since freed slaves returned there from America -- has failed to play a strong role to end hostilities. Officials in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, as well as U.S. diplomats in the two countries, believe that active U.S. intervention months ago could have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.
It is now time to put other solutions in place. Though the cease-fire engineered by Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen in late September lasted only days, this peacemaking attempt does show the potential for constructive U.S. involvement.
What is needed from the United States is a presidential push for a settlement in Liberia, starting with a new cease-fire. Perhaps a U.N. peacekeeping component could be added. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar should appoint a high level representative immediately. But with the African group at the United Nations split, the secretary general can only move ahead with support from major powers like the United States.
Where are the voices in and out of government for a more responsive approach to Liberia? Those in Congress who follow Africa -- including the Black Caucus -- have been generally passive. Meanwhile, the media continue to allow the Gulf to dominate their radar screens.
While pressing for a more effective U.S. approach to the Liberian civil war, we should encourage recent, belated U.S. actions to get food to Liberia. Starvation is looming. As helpless as the Liberian refugees are, they never forget to remind a visitor of the need to get food to their brethren back home and the imperative to stop the fighting. Obstacles to increased food delivery need to be addressed: maritime carriers must be insured, the interdiction of food must be ended and the facilitation of distribution on the ground improved. These problems are soluble and the world should be doing more than watching Liberia starve.
One last problem: Why is it so difficult for those Liberians with relatives and other close ties to the United States to get non-immigrant visas? Thousands of Liberians have been granted the right to remain indefinitely in the United States until conditions improve at home. This should be extended to those close family members who arrived after July, and the State Department should instruct our embassies to interpret the visa law flexibly and humanely.
It is unconscionable that the United States and the international community are not acting more effectively on Liberia across-the-board -- inside the country, along its borders and at ours.
The writer, executive director of Refugees International, recently visited Liberian refugees in Guinea and the Ivory Coast.