- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

MONROVIA, Liberia Joshua Gbaryou looks too thin to be 5 years old. His father is dead. His mother is insane with grief. His surname is borrowed.

The skinny boy in the ragged green T-shirt is one of 46 children who have fled an orphanage in Liberia's northwestern town of Tubmanburg because of fierce fighting between government soldiers and rebels seeking to oust President Charles Taylor.

The children are among 50,000 displaced people scraping out a living on the abandoned site of a former Voice of America relay station, just outside Monrovia, the pockmarked capital of this West African nation founded by freed American slaves.

Accompanied by their caregivers, the orphans fled here in February. It took them four days to travel 35 miles to Monrovia. At one point, they were held up for two days by government soldiers trying to stem the flow of frightened people into the capital.

"Despite the tough time we went through on the road, we managed to keep all the children together until we reached safety," said Nathaniel Gbaryou, director of Youth for Development and Rehabilitation, which ran the Tubmanburg orphanage.

Joshua's father was killed a few months ago while fleeing Tubmanburg during one of the rebel attacks. His mother witnessed the killing and "since that time, she has been so traumatized that she looks insane," the orphanage director said.

He has given his surname to Joshua, a common practice in camps for displaced people.

The orphanage has taken over a warehouse once used to store antennas at the VOA station. The children are squeezed into tiny rooms in the facility, built in the 1970s.

Many of the children were not sure what happened to their parents. Tenneh Gray, a lively 13-year-old with elaborately braided hair, could repeat only what she was told.

"My father was tied and beaten with sticks until he died in Tubmanburg. That is what my aunt told me, because it happened when I was a small girl," she said. Orphanage officials said Tenneh's mother died of malnutrition some years after the killing of her husband, in Liberia's continuing years of conflict.

Like Tenneh, most of the children here lost their parents during Liberia's original 1989-96 civil war, which killed more than 150,000 people and forced 2.6 million from their homes.

Mr. Taylor emerged as the strongest warlord and won presidential elections after the war.

Since 1999, however, rebels calling themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy have battled to topple the Boston-educated president. Fighting intensified this year, with the rebels coming to within a few minutes' drive of Monrovia.

Mr. Taylor said the rebels included members of factions that fought against him in the civil war and accused Guinea of backing the insurgents. Guinea, in turn, accused Liberia of supporting its own insurgents, along with rebels from Sierra Leone who also had raided Guinean territory.

Now, the United Nations estimates 200,000 people are on the move, trying to keep one step ahead of the shifting front lines. Children have paid a high price during the years of conflict.

Fighters on all sides have forced children, sometimes as young as 6, into their ranks. Other children have had to flee their homes, sometimes losing contact with their families on roads crowded with panicked people.

Hunger haunts the camps. "Right now, there is not a cup of food for the children to eat," Mr. Gbaryou said. "Today, I had to go around and hustle for 250 Liberian dollars ($3.50) before buying a little food for them to eat."

Mr. Gbaryou said the World Food Program last delivered some bulgur wheat to the children on July 25. The U.N. food agency has said no more food is in stock for now, he added.

"In Tubmanburg, at least we used to make farms to survive. We did not rely on handouts as we are doing here," he said.

In Virginia, west of Monrovia, the Temas Memorial Children's Welfare Center is also home to orphans from the Tubmanburg region.

The children, ages 3 to 16, live in makeshift shelters of sticks and plastic sheets provided by Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the French medical charity. Food is scarce and Doris Weefur, who runs the center with her husband, says little help has come from the authorities.

"We have invited government officials, we have gone to their offices with appeals to come and visit the children and assist, but none of them have come," she said. "So we are tired of running around. God will provide for the children."


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