MONROVIA, LIBERIA -- "Touchdown Tony" Baker seemed a remarkably happy man as he waited in line to cash a check at a downtown bank the other day. All around him in this fearful West African capital, confusion seemed to reign, with shortages of gasoline, rice and sugar and an exodus of citizens in the wake of tribal killings.
Yet there the American stood, his muscular arms crossed at the chest, beaming as if he hadn't a care in the world. "Hey man, Liberia's great," laughed the 43-year-old former running back. "The heat's fantastic for my bones. The knees and shoulder never felt better."
That a former National Football League fullback with sore joints can find a measure of peace here even at a time of national crisis says something about the resiliency of Monrovia's people, who always seem to find a way to get by in this besieged capital of a country at war.
Baker was nicknamed "Touchdown Tony" during his days as a fullback for the Iowa State University Cyclones. From 1968 to 1976 he ran for the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams. Several years after his retirement, he took a trip to Africa "looking for something to do in warm weather" and ended up in Liberia, where he says he started working the lumber trade and has not left since.
"This is home. Business is gonna get good again," he said. "I'm not leaving."
Baker is not alone. While six U.S. warships and a contingent of Marines remain anchored off the Liberian coast to evacuate Americans in case of an emergency, about 1,400 American citizens continue with their lives here despite atrocities by soldiers against civilians and encroaching anarchy.
Headless bodies are discovered in the streets. Sixteen corpses remain unidentified in the morgue more than a week after they were found. So many Liberians have fled the country in recent weeks that the government has run out of passports.
Yet many people who can go freely choose to stay. One reason seems to be that anarchy is not too far from the norm here.
"There are certain things you learn to put up with in Liberia that you would never tolerate in America," said an American businessman who has lived here for 17 years. "You pay off soldiers in order to pass checkpoints. That's nothing new. Sometimes they steal your car, but so what? You can always get another one. It's the price of doing business here."
A Belgian timber shipper became enraged the other day as he accused foreign journalists of sensationalizing Liberia's troubles. "Life is so good here. Business is good here. But you people scare everyone away. In Africa, people are always fighting. It is nothing new."
But according to Western diplomats, about a quarter of Monrovia's 500,000 people have fled in recent weeks -- especially those from the Lebanese and Liberian merchant communities. Meanwhile, refugees from the countryside have fled into the city to escape fighting between rebel and government troops in the countryside.
A nasty strain of viral conjunctivitis is spreading among the refugees. The ailment, which painfully swells the eyes and turns their whites scarlet, is known as "Apollo" by Liberians. They say the disease was brought from the moon by astronauts.
Some of the same people insist that President Samuel K. Doe, a former army sergeant, keeps two lions in the basement of his mansion and feeds them two live humans daily.
In the six-month war, rebels of the National Patriotic Front have pushed to within 35 miles of Monrovia in an effort to end Doe's 10-year rule. With soldiers on each side killing civilians of tribes identified with the other, many refugees and Monrovians are seeking sanctuary with fellow tribe members in the city's churches, hoping to find security in numbers.
Liberia's rebels control about a third of the country and have overrun numerous rubber plantations, iron-ore mines and timber regions that produce nearly 90 percent of the country's annual export earnings of $500 million. Diplomatic sources say imports are down 80 percent at the port.
Ships have refused to dock here because of the chaos, the latest a freighter carrying concentrate of Coca-Cola, of which there is little left in the city.
Diplomatic sources say about $4 million remains in government coffers. As peace talks between the two warring sides go on in neighboring Sierra Leone, these sources say the capital may be able to survive two more months -- if current reserves of rice and gasoline are used wisely.
Few observers believe that the rebels will wait that long before attempting to march on the capital, however, should the peace talks drag on.
Between 1980 and 1985, the U.S. government provided Doe more than $500 million in economic and military aid. Since then, it has cut support sharply in the wake of human rights offenses and accusations of rampant corruption. Most of Doe's officers were trained in the United States and two U.S. military advisers continue to be posted in the Ministry of Defense. They refuse all requests to talk about their work.
The country is $800 million in debt, allegedly because of corruption and mismanagement. The International Monetary Fund is scheduled to vote in August on a motion to expel Liberia from the organization. No other country has ever suffered such a fate.
Liberia's millions of soccer fans are following the World Cup matches in Italy by radio instead of television -- Liberia is $3 million in debt to Intelsat.
Monrovia, named after U.S. president James Monroe, rises from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a jumble of low-slung office buildings and squalid wooden shacks. The narrow downtown streets teem with black-market money changers and hawkers -- of trinkets and Tupperware, marijuana and prostitutes.
The weather is so hot that the palm trees are limp. It is a West African city with an overlay of American political and cultural influences.
Founded by freed American slaves in 1822, the country has looked to America with admiration and affection. In settlements where descendants of those original slaves live, some dilapidated houses of corrugated steel and wood have American-style dormers, porticos, shutters and porches.
Liberia's soldiers -- of whom there are an estimated 2,000 guarding the city -- saunter about in American-made khaki or camouflage uniforms, with M-16 rifles often dragged along the pavement with nonchalance.
African and American soul music resounds from radios and tape players and the people speak in a rapid and colorful dialect of English that would not sound too far out of place in the streets of an American city.
The Liberian handshake resembles the American soul handshake, but with an African twist. Upon completion, each party grabs the other's middle finger with his own and snaps it with a flourish. The ritual is done so skillfully and persistently that when Liberian friends gather it sounds like a convention of crickets.
Style and form seem to take precedence over substance and function in many aspects of Liberian society. In an immigration office here where travelers go to renew visas, a key official works in a room whose walls are adorned with portraits of Doe, handwritten platitudes about how to lead a good and honest life and a large poster recounting the Ten Commandments.
With an ever-present smile, this official asks for tips in American cash for his service and dispenses visas at more than twice the official price.
The other day on Capitol Hill, site of Liberia's Senate and House of Representatives, Vice President Harry Moniba spoke to several foreign journalists about the "beauty" of Liberia's U.S.-modeled constitution and the "checks and balances" that make the system work. When asked if it is possible for the Senate or House to question or defy Doe on any issue, however, Moniba laughed and shook his head.
It seemed a pretty slow day on the Hill. Only 11 of the 26 senators showed up for a session, the others having called in sick or fled the country. When asked by journalists how many of the senators were sleeping in their own homes these days, two raised their hands with Moniba and shouted, "I am!"
The others laughed nervously.