FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE, AUG. 11 -- The rotund merchant with the thick, gold chain around his neck sat beside the swimming pool at the Hotel Mammy Yoko, transfixing a suntanned crowd of listeners with tales of horror from Monrovia.
"I can't tell you how bad it is," said the man, a Lebanese dealer in car mufflers and stereo equipment who said he paid the $300 fee the U.S. government charges for a helicopter ride to this city from the war-wracked Liberian capital last week.
"The dogs, they are eating bodies on the beach," he said, sucking slowly on a cigarette. "And the people, my God. The people are starting to eat the dogs."
Freetown is just 200 miles or so northwest of Monrovia, but in some ways it seems to exist in a different universe. There are no rebel troops here fighting to topple a despotic ruler and no mass murders of civilians by unruly thugs in uniforms. Freetown's miles of sandy beaches seem to be used for sunbathing, strolling and volleyball games instead of wholesale executions.
In other ways, however, this congested capital of 500,000 people is eerily reminiscent of its neighbor to the south, for it is filled with exiles from Monrovia.
In the last two months more than 45,000 Liberian refugees have made their way to Sierra Leone, most by car or truck, but some on foot. About 300,000 others have fled to Guinea and Ivory Coast, and one estimate, by the Organization of African Unity, puts the total number of refugees at a half-million, or one-fifth of Liberia's population.
Freetown seems to be a miniature Monrovia -- Monrovia without the stench of death. While Monrovia was founded by freed American slaves, Freetown was built by former slaves from Britain and the British colonies in the Caribbean. And as in Liberia, official corruption, rampant plunder of the nation's mineral wealth and deep-seated poverty seem to go together in Sierra Leone.
Freetown is the governmental center of a country that ranks near the very bottom of the world in terms of literacy, health care and infant mortality. Yet, according to one economist, nearly $500 million worth of diamonds from Sierra Leone are exchanged at an international market in Antwerp, Belgium, each year -- off the books.
Just as Liberia has its traditional ruling class in the form of the descendants of the founding freed slaves, Sierra Leone has proud descendants of its own heroine, Mammy Yoko, a 19th century tribal chief who was one of the first to do business with the British.
These days, Freetown resounds with the echoes of the war and terror to the south. The dank and narrow streets, like Monrovia's, are lined with low-slung colonial structures discolored by mildew, reek of rotten vegetables and sewage and are clogged with cars bearing Liberian license plates and driven by prosperous exiles who fled the fighting.
This week, a Freetown newspaper, reacting to a dire report about a wild fistfight between Liberian exiles in a city slum, expressed shock that Monrovia-style violence apparently is finding a new home here.
Amid the occasional thunder of U.S. military helicopters landing elsewhere in the city, even the port is assuming aspects of a Monrovian hell. There, a rusty Nigerian ship rolling dismally with the swells, continues to wait out the Liberian fighting after being turned back from Monrovia by rebel troops last week in an attempt to rescue some of the more than 3,000 Nigerian nationals stranded there.
The bearded captain of the NNS Ambe, wearing gold and black brocaded slippers on deck, seemed to be in a foul mood when visitors appeared the other day, angrily ordering a photographer's cameras seized after he had snapped a shot of the vessel.
At noon each day, the library of the U.S. Embassy downtown serves as a home away from home for former top Liberian government officials who defected from the regime of President Samuel K. Doe. By the dozens, they and other Liberian exiles gather to peruse magazines and watch videotapes of American television news programs.
"As a government official, I cannot comment on military matters," said Information Minister J. Emmanuel Z. Bowier, responding to a query about Doe's state of mind in Monrovia. During a recent visit to the library, Bowier said he decided to remain here after fitful attempts at peace talks in Freetown broke off earlier this year. "Besides, I have not talked to his excellency in three months."
Radio telephones that operate in several hotels and travel agencies provide the only reliable communication between Freetown and Monrovia. Each day, crackling with distant voices in a plethora of languages, the radios attract crowds of foreign diplomats and others anxious to know about the well-being of colleagues and friends. For security reasons, the conversations are often carried on in code. "Donald Duck" means the U.S. Marines who continue to guard the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and to evacuate personnel, while "head man" means Doe.
One Western diplomat here said Monrovia appears to be assuming all the qualities of "55 Days in Peking," a film depicting life among the diplomatic community in the Chinese capital during the Boxer Rebellion. On Saturday, the Spanish ambassador to Liberia, Manuel de Luna, who is providing safe haven for scores of Westerners and Liberians, bravely insisted by radio that he would not leave Monrovia until the last Spanish citizen was out.
But perhaps the clearest indication of Monrovia's strange reflection here is in the kinds of people and lifestyles Freetown has begun to attract. This has always been a sleepy and impoverished port town compared with Monrovia, the relatively wealthy and wild West African metropolis where the pursuit of money, legal and illegal, is virtually a religion.
Nowadays, that flavor is keen here. The city's musty and run-down hotels are filled with merchants and other businessmen from Monrovia, many of them Asians and Lebanese, who are merely awaiting the end of the war so they can return to business.
Peter Sobeck is also here, an Israeli-born charter flight operator who runs a Soviet-made Antonov cargo plane that once was based in Monrovia. A "have plane will travel" sort of daredevil and entrepreneur, Sobeck says he has contacts with the two rebel factions and the Liberian government and until a few weeks ago, when the airport in Monrovia was closed because of the fighting, he ran a virtual shuttle service, carrying assorted relief cargo in and frantic businessfolk out. One merchant said he paid Sobeck $3,000 for the lift from Monrovia to Freetown.
Today, about 800 troops from Guinea were due to arrive in Freetown, the first of about 2,400 soldiers from other West African countries who plan to converge here to take part in a joint peace-keeping force that is to be sent to Liberia. In a few days, the martial features that have come to characterize life in Monrovia in recent months likely will become evident here as well.
International relief officials say the Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast will need 70,000 tons of food in the coming months. The border regions of all three countries are filled with refugees, with the situation in Guinea perhaps the most acute because of dense vegetation, inaccessibility and the long distance from Conakry, the capital.
Officials from each country have appealed for aid, and many seemed stunned by what they perceive as an inadequate American response.
"I simply cannot explain it, particularly since Liberia was a virtual colony of the United States for so many years," said Chris Pearson, director of the International Red Cross office here, listing seven other countries that have agreed to donate at least $17,000 each for relief in Sierra Leone. Pearson said he finally received a donation of $10,000 from the American Red Cross.
Karen Koning Abu Zayd, director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office here, agreed that the U.S. response has been weak, saying the office received $10,000 from an embassy discretionary fund only this week.
One reason for the muted response may be that many of the Liberian refugees have been welcomed with virtual open arms by many Sierra Leonians in the countryside.
"It's simply extraordinary" Pearson said, adding that many Liberians, in what appears to be a typical example of West African hospitality, are living in private homes. According to relief officials, most of the Liberian refugees in this country are city dwellers and relatively well-to-do by African standards. These are the people who had the means to escape.
"They come from a comparatively wealthy country to one with many problems," Pearson said. "They expect food and health care, but it's not up to their expectations. For many of them, it is a traumatic experience."
The other day, at the head of a crowd of refugees waiting to register for assistance at a Red Cross center here, stood a dapper fellow named Patrick Seekie, wearing a bright gold watch and powder blue pin striped suit. Seekie served as an official in Doe's Finance Ministry before he escaped two weeks ago.
"It was a terrible experience," Seekie said. "I just had to leave when the soldiers began to make us bury the bodies."