MONROVIA, LIBERIA, DEC. 11 -- Four-year-old Falah Saah, too weak from starvation to cry out, could only murmur listlessly as he lay in his mother's lap.
"I want drink, drink, drink," he said softly, nearly drowned out by the moans from other sick children in the ward at Island Hospital, one of only two hospitals still operating in Monrovia, the capital of war-torn Liberia.
His mother, Maita Solui, said he is one of only three of her seven children to survive the West African country's year-long civil war.
Hundreds of Liberian children have died of starvation, and doctors say that unless a huge food aid program is launched, thousands more will succumb. Other youngsters, brutalized by seeing mothers raped and parents, brothers and sisters killed, became child soldiers in the rebel armies. Falah's eldest brother joined and was killed.
The physical and mental condition of the surviving children has raised fears about the future of this West African nation. Relief workers say the degree of starvation has been so great that many children who live will suffer brain damage.
The child soldiers suffer in other ways. At a rebel base in Caldwell, outside the capital, a young boy played with a remote-control toy car. Draped over his shoulder was a machine gun -- a real one.
"I'm a man; I have killed like a man," boasted another little boy. He looked 6 or 7 years old, with a gun nearly as tall as he was, but refused to give his age.
For orphans who have watched their parents killed by Liberian troops, the rebel camp offered a substitute family, food -- and an opportunity for revenge.
"They are still little children, but how are we going to convince them of that when it's all over?" said Myrtle Gibson, a real estate agent who turned to relief work. "How are we going to make them real people again? After this war, we're going to have a lot more wars to fight."
Hunger is the most immediate problem. Starving Monrovians ate the city's pet dogs and cats months ago. They ate zoo animals, including chimpanzees. Then they turned to the vegetation, eating weeds and slashing down palm trees to eat the filling but nonnutritious fiber under the bark.
A little food is on sale: bunches of green leaves and weeds, some stolen canned goods, a few oranges, looted rice. But few can afford it.
The Belgian branch of the international aid group Doctors Without Borders started supplementary feeding, now reaching 3,000 children with help from newly arrived United Nations workers.
U.N. representative Michael Heyn said the relief workers hoped soon to feed 25,000 children. But he said 90,000 children in Monrovia alone need a special diet to recover.
"The world community has focused mainly on the political and military aspects of the crisis but does not realize yet that the Liberian people are literally starving and dying, particularly the children," he said.
Island Hospital has become a center for the war's orphans, children who have lost their parents in panicked rushes away from the fighting. Then there are the wounded, including a little girl whose leg had to be amputated, a boy who lost an eye.
Ellen James, a nurse at the hospital, goes out on the streets with other health workers to bring in starving children, but they can only help a few. "We pick up 10, maybe 12; meanwhile they are dying in their hundreds," she said.
"It is difficult to find a child who is not suffering from severe malnutrition," said Richard Ndamse, one of six volunteer doctors working at the hospital for a token payment of six cups of rice a month.
The hospital has no running water and little electricity. Because of a fuel shortage, a generator was turned on only for emergency operations. Monrovia has been without running water, electricity and regular food supplies for six months.
Monrovia was once a city of about 425,000 people; roughly one-quarter of them remain. According to the United Nations, more than 750,000 Liberians have fled to neighboring countries.
The victims in the war have been mostly civilians. It is not known how many have died -- certainly more than the 10,000 killed in the fighting that began last Dec. 23.