FENDELL, Liberia – Donweh Bar props up her skeletal frame, wizened beyond her 48 years, with spindly arms wrapped around a twisted cane. Nearby a toddler with protruding belly and ribs eats a few grains of corn meal from her mother's hand.
Despite a peace deal signed Monday formally ending Liberia's brutal civil war, hundreds of thousand of people — many nearly starving — are awaiting food aid before they celebrate. While 60 tons of food have been delivered by U.N. groups since West African peacekeepers and U.S. Marines secured the capital's port last week, aid officials concede it is still far too little.
Bar sleeps on a grass mat elbow to elbow with several thousand other refugees jammed in classrooms of an abandoned campus building of the University of Liberia (search) at Fendell, some 8 miles east of the capital Monrovia (search).
She cannot remember when she last ate wild leaves and tubers, among the only food. "Two days," she said weakly. "No, maybe two weeks."
Another woman, Esther Lorla, fed her wide-eyed, skinny-legged baby girl a few grains of corn meal from her hand, given by a stranger after both went three days without eating.
The hunger peaked during weeks of sieges by rebels on the capital of Monrovia in July and early August. Hundreds of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands left on the verge of starvation.
West African troops that began deploying two weeks ago have held a two-week-old cease-fire, allowing a few ship- and planeloads of food aid to flow into the ravaged city again. But in the countryside where undisciplined fighters still hold sway, hundreds of thousands of civilians languish without nourishment — many of them weak from fleeing fighting numerous times in recent months.
Many Liberians have pinned their hopes on the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force and on a lasting U.S. military presence. President Bush, however, announced Monday that U.S. forces would leave the country by October. Fewer than 200 U.S. Marines are now on the ground.
Negotiators signed an accord Monday in Accra, Ghana that keeps warring parties out of the interim government's top posts, but allows them to choose the politicians and civic members who will fill them.
The accord follows President Charles Taylor's resignation and departure into exile on Aug. 11.
Elections are to follow in two years for the country, which was Africa's first republic, founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
Few of the displaced residents of Fendell camp expressed interest in news of the peace document.
"We are hungry. We want food," said Saylee Jarbateh, a 52-year-old mother of five who fled her Monrovia home with her children in June during the first of the sieges in the city. "Without food, how can we have peace? How can we go home?"
Aid efforts by "heroic" relief workers traveling in convoys into the interior have so far been hampered by government and rebel fighters who hold sway in the countryside, targeting the aid groups' food and medicines to sell for profit or weapons, said Jacques Klein (search), U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan's Liberia special representative.
At Gbartala village, 90 miles east of the capital, unpaid government troops on Tuesday stood guard over more than 1,000 displaced residents from other villages whom they ordered to sleep in places of worship and local residents' huts where the soldiers hoped international groups would soon deliver aid.
"We will be a target for attack" by the soldiers if food is delivered as they hope, whispered Gaius Tabla, a village teacher. "To bring food to a hungry man is a fine thing. But we will not be able to enjoy it unless we are free from harassment from the rebels and [government] militias."
A military officer, calling himself "General Spirit," insisted his fighters were only monitoring the civilians "for their protection." Despite the peace deal, clashes between government and rebel troops persisted near the northern town of Gbarnga, just a few miles away.
U.N. officials say the key to the delivery of more food aid is more peacekeepers. In the meantime, the crisis mounts.
Yuktar Farah, an official with the U.N. agency coordinating the international relief effort, described Liberia's food crisis as among the world's most severe in the past decade — worse than other humanitarian disasters he had witnessed in 1990s Rwanda, Angola and Eritrea.
"Over half a million people have no access to [clean] water, no access to food," Farah said. "We're not going to wait" to help.
Aid workers of the international charity Action Contre la Faim (search), or Action Against Hunger, have filled three feeding centers with 450 toddlers under five and their care-givers — many with distended bellies and skin swollen and wrinkled from vitamin and protein deficiencies.
"I have never seen this many seriously malnourished children before," said Annie Wright, an aid worker who has spent nine years with the organization.