Monrovia, Liberia.--For four years they ruled Liberia, fighters without uniforms, most in their teens, wielding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
They robbed and looted, beating or murdering any civilian who resisted.
They lived by their guns.
But a small miracle occurred last month in this country united until recently only by mistrust and fear.
The fighters began to surrender their weapons.
"They were extremely happy," said U.N. Special Representative Trevor Gordon-Somers, who watched. "They were singing songs and dancing around, and their commanders were cheering them on and dancing with them."
On March 7, the three parties to a July cease-fire formed a transitional government and ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force, began disarming fighters in the conflict that has left more than 150,000 dead and driven large segments of the population of 2.5 million from their homes.
The date for these moves was announced in mid-February, but few citizens of this West African country, founded by freed American slaves in 1821, believed it would be honored.
"They have said so many things. . . . But in the end we have seen nothing -- things have gotten worse," said Ellen Suwo Johnson, who waits in Guinea for the United Nations to tell her it's safe to go home.
"We have hoped, hoped, hoped, hoped, hoped. And they have said, said, said, said, said. How soon is soon? How many times do we have to have hope?" said a man living in Monrovia, the capital, who did not want his name used because he fears members of one of the warring factions.
The war started in December 1989, when Charles Taylor and a small band of rebels invaded from neighboring Ivory Coast to topple unpopular military ruler Samuel K. Doe. By July 1990, Mr. Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had reached the capital of Monrovia.
In August 1990, after Doe soldiers and rebels massacred civilians belonging to rival ethnic groups, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a peacekeeping force. As ECOMOG (the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group) took the capital, rebels captured Mr. Doe and tortured him to death. The peacekeeping force installed an interim government in Monrovia, but left Mr. Taylor in control of most of the country.
The stalemate broke in 1992, when a group of former Doe soldiers known as ULIMO (the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia) attacked the NPFL from Sierra Leone, and Mr. Taylor's forces launched an offensive against the capital.
ECOMOG, fighting with ULIMO and the remnants of Mr. Doe's army, pushed the NPFL back, taking about a third of Mr. Taylor's territory and forcing him to make peace in July 1993.
Under the cease-fire agreement, February was to have been when Liberians voted to elect a new government. But as the month opened, the parties to the accord -- the interim government, the NPFL and ULIMO -- weren't speaking to each other.
Only after the United Nations and United States, which has contributed $29 million to the peace effort, applied pressure did the three sides agree to a timetable that schedules the long-awaited election Sept. 7.
"We told the Liberian parties that if they screw this one up they might not have as many layers of attention and protection," said William Twadell, U.S. ambassador to Liberia. "Some of them may find that heartening -- they can go back to killing. But I think some are getting the message that this sort of jockeying and palavering has to end."
About 13,000 ECOMOG troops, watched by 360 U.N. observers, have started disarming an undetermined number of fighters -- Mr. Twadell estimates as few as 20,000, while the United Nations estimates as many as 60,000.
Those numbers represent not only the NPFL and ULIMO, but the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Mr. Doe's army, and the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), formed since the cease-fire largely by fighters from the AFL. Many believe ECOMOG has supported the LPC to maintain pressure on Mr. Taylor.
Fighters will be offered rice and civilian clothes in return for their guns at encampment sites. There are long-term plans to resettle them and readjust them to civilian life.
"It will be hard for a man who has come from a hut to a nice house with air conditioning in the city to go back," said Joe Gardiner, who works for ELRL, a radio station in the NPFL capital of Gbarnga. "We have to create room for rehabilitation."
Liberians describe soldiers on all sides as thugs who commonly switch sides and fight more against civilians than each other.
"They say they don't take pay, so they have to pay themselves," said Jonathan Zonoe, a refugee. He arrived in the port of Buchanan in early February after fleeing fighting between the NPFL and LPC, also known as Last Property Collectors.
In the case of ULIMO, a split has developed between officers and lower-ranking soldiers who resent their superiors for profiting from sales of diamonds and timber. Orders from above may or may not be followed. That split is complicated by another in the leadership of the faction, whose loyalties are divided between Alhaji Kromah, a Mandingo, and Roosevelt Johnson, a member of the Krahn ethnic group.
The first week of disarmament, ULIMO soldiers were not handing over their guns, they were fighting each other. At least 300 people died in March and early this month, and thousands fled from the ULIMO headquarters of Tubmanburg, 40 miles northwest of Monrovia. The Mandingo-Krahn fighting and continued attacks by the LPC in the southeast of the country blocked ECOMOG's deployment and slowed disarmament, with less than 2,000 guns collected by the end of March.
The peace process suffered a further setback in March when the NPFL withdrew its representatives from the legislature and cabinet of the transitional government because of a dispute over who will head the ministries of defense, finance, foreign affairs and justice.
Recently, fighting between the Krahns and Mandingos has dropped off. The NPFL and LPC have started cease-fire talks. ECOMOG has deployed in some ULIMO and LPC areas, but disarmament remains on hold and the NPFL continues to refuse to fully participate in the coalition government.
Most Liberians who have suffered at the hands of the fighters say they are willing to forgive. "It's between them and God," said a young woman whose father was beaten to death over a cup of rice.
But the feeling is complicated by ethnic hatred, especially toward the Mano, Gio, Krahn and Mandingo groups, who together account for only about 25 percent of the population but most of the fighters.
The man who did not wish his name used was arrested by ULIMO soldiers after they intercepted a letter he wrote describing houses destroyed in his hometown. His arms were tied so that his elbows touched behind his back, then he was dragged on the ground. Months later, there are raised ridges of flesh at his elbows and scars at his collar bone.
"There were Mandingos that supported this armed group," he said. "I may not know all of them, but there was not a single man who spoke against it. If they come to prove that now the war is over, that they will not do these things, I can accept them. But if they do not want reconciliation . . . if the majority of the people vote that they will not have Mandingos in the town, I will have small voice against it."
For Mandingos, it will also be hard to forgive, said Sister Miriam Therese O'Brien of the Jesuit Refugee Service, assigned in Gbarnga to help foster reconciliation: One man watched Charles Taylor's fighters bury his children alive. Another watched them wrap a family member in a mat, douse it in oil and set her afire.
Benedict Sannoh, of the Monrovia-based Center for Law and Human Rights Education, believes that lasting peace will not come until wealth and development are distributed throughout the nation instead of being confined to the capital, now a prize fought over by rival ethnic groups.
"If people outside Monrovia can have a means of living, it will minimize tribal conflicts," he said. "There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who really care less who is president. All they want is peace."
Karen Lange, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia from 1984 to 1986, traveled there recently under a grant from the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a reporter for the Chapel Hill Herald.