Refugees Pour Into Liberian Capital

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Makeshift tents fill a U.S. Embassy compound. Laundry flutters between the columns of the crumbling Freemasons Lodge. And thousands are crammed under the bleachers of an athletics stadium.

As rebels swept south into Monrovia (search), up to half the country's 3 million people have squeezed into every crevice of the crumbling, bombed-out capital -- trapped between the rapidly advancing insurgents and the Atlantic ocean.

Liberians have been chased from their homes through almost 14 years of bloody turmoil. This time, they say, they aren't going back until U.S. peacekeepers land in the country, founded more than a century ago by freed American slaves.

Aid groups say virtually the whole population has been displaced by fighting at one time or another. Monrovia's population, already swollen to about 1 million by the end of the 1989-96 war, has increased steadily since the resumption of hostilities in 1999.

"Where can we go from here now?" asked Paul Digen, a teacher from northern Liberia forced to flee 10 times during two civil wars. "Nowhere, unless peace comes."

President Bush has promised to work with West African nations planning to send troops to enforce a repeatedly broken June 17 cease-fire, but he has not specified whether he will contribute to the force.

When rebels fighting to oust warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor (search) punched into the city Saturday, tens of thousands of people from outlying neighborhoods fled downtown, piling into the few spaces that remained - mostly churches, schools and the stadium.

Others pressed against the gates of diplomatic missions and humanitarian agency compounds, pleading for sanctuary.

Overcrowding has increased the misery in a city still without electricity and water services since the last war ended in 1996.

Many sleep on the rain-soaked ground. Food is scarce, sanitation is poor and disease is rife -- problems aid workers say they can do little about until security is restored.

Some 350 cholera (search) cases are diagnosed a week. Malnutrition is also spreading as families already short on food take on more mouths to feed. More than 20 emaciated babies arrive daily to feeding centers, aid workers say.

At the Samuel K. Doe Stadium (search) up to 30,000 war refugees have turned bleachers, locker rooms and offices into makeshift homes.

In the stadium's darkened underbelly, bare concrete rooms teem with people, and the air is thick with smoke from charcoal fires. Pebbles line the floors, marking off the living spaces.

Rain water drips through the stands under which Digen sits compiling his student's grades. He was teaching the day rebels overran his last home -- a refugee camp on the northwestern outskirts of the city -- and fled without extra clothes. But he did manage to save his students' test results.

At the camp he was able to grow a few vegetables to help feed his family. They now depend on handouts. At night, they sleep on empty rice bags on the ground.

Rebels beat his brother to death at the start of Liberia's last war, and a few days ago, cholera claimed the life of a sister.

"Our grandfathers and great grandfathers worked on the American plantations for many years," Digen said. "So why should they neglect us now?"

Clinging to ties many Americans never knew they had, thousands more Liberians have sought sanctuary in a residential compound built for U.S. diplomats, some of whom were evacuated when rebels attacked the city last month. Rickety bamboo structures fill the muddy grounds, but without enough tarpaulin to go round, many offer no protection against the season's torrential rains.

Among those here is Barbara Williams, a 36-year-old mother of five, who was erecting a tent on a rocky hill last month when a rocket slammed into the compound. Many were killed in the strike and the stampede it triggered, including two of her friends.

But when it was over, she went right back to putting up her tent.

"I was scared, but I say better stay in here than go outside," she said, as she sorted bags of charcoal into neat piles to sell to other refugees. "Everywhere now is risky."

The few who ventured back to camps on Monrovia's outskirts ahead of the latest rebel advance complained of nightly raids by armed, drunk and drugged government fighters, who they say rape and steal from residents.

There was also systematic looting in the northwestern suburbs -- now held by rebels -- as evidenced by a flood of new merchandise, including bath tubs and toilet seats, at the city's main market, humanitarian workers say.

On Wednesday, military chief Gen. Benjamin Yeaten said he had instructed that any troops caught "harassing or molesting peaceful civilians should be executed on the spot."

The next day, heavy explosions heard in Monrovia's northwest outskirts prompted a new wave of refugees fleeing for the city with rolled up mattresses and bundles of clothes balanced on their heads.

"As soon as we try to settle, war comes again," said Kula Gbelley, who has been fleeing gunfire for more than half of her 24 years. "We are tired."