Liberia: Searching for Family

    MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The faces of children peer down from posters on street corners all over this battle-scarred capital pleading with Liberians to help reunite families shattered by war.
    Passers-by scrutinize each child in crowded rows of hundreds of photographs on the posters under the sign “Where Are Our Parents?” The posters were taped up by aid workers.
    The Red Cross is tracking more than 1,800 Liberian children reported separated from their families during this west African country’s last, three-year civil war — a fraction of the millions displaced in the 14 years of conflict.
    About 800 other children have been reconnected with parents or other relatives, though the reunion, is not always picture-perfect.

    The tracing effort is the largest ever attempted by the Red Cross in West Africa, said Marcel Stoessel, part of the program.
    “We’d like to solve these cases as soon as possible,” Stoessel said.
    Most of the children being traced are now living in Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia’s northern and western neighbors. Other children are in Ivory Coast, Ghana, or in Liberia itself.
    The reunion campaign is one of many humanitarian programs getting under way as Gyude Bryant, a longtime civilian campaigner against Liberian warlords, settles into office. Bryant was sworn in Tuesday as chairman of a two-year interim administration to lead Liberia out of devastating factional power-struggles and into elections in 2005.
    Bryant took over a nation in ruins, just two months removed from war and with thousands of fighters still in arms.
    Warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor resigned in August ahead of the signing of a peace deal, and now lives in exile in Nigeria. More than 4,000 U.N. troops are in Liberia to keep the peace. It is a force that will grow to about 15,000 — the largest U.N. force in the world.
    Sieges in the 2 1/2 months before Taylor’s exit killed more than 1,000 civilians in the capital, capping nearly a decade and a half of conflict estimated to have left more than 150,000 dead.
    Warring groups in Liberia — allied with rebel factions or government forces — have been notorious for recruiting child soldiers.
    Stoessel acknowledged that a small number of the children being traced were fighters in the war. “But they are just like other children and need to find their families,” he said.
    Not all parent-child reunions are joyous ones.
    Robert Mayson, 42, was reunited with his 10-year-old son Richmond on Thursday — the first time they’d seen each other since May, when the boy ran away from home in Buchanan, Liberia’s second city.
    Mayson, who is separated from Richmond’s mother, rode in a Red Cross truck to a tin-roofed shack in the heart of Monrovia where his son had been living under the care of another family.
    “I didn’t throw you out of the house,” Mayson said to his son upon seeing him.
    The boy, dressed in torn jeans and an oversized black T-shirt, said nothing and stared at the ground.
    “I don’t know what your problem is,” said Mayson. “You are from a good family. Why must you suffer yourself.”

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