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07-15-03, 05:56 AM
'Branch Of The American Tree'
Liberians see country as offshoot, U.S. as savior


July 14, 2003

Monrovia, Liberia - Pancakes and doughnuts are breakfast fare, and worshipers sing gospel in a 19th-century Baptist church built by slaves freed from America's Deep South.

This is Sunday in war-ravaged Liberia, a West African nation with an American soul crying for help.

"We pray to God that the Americans will send soldiers and bring us peace of mind and hearts as soft as cotton," Nessidee Mason, 55, whispered between hymns at Monrovia's Providence Baptist Church, its roof leaking after recent shelling.

Surrounded by reminders of America's cultural and political influence, Liberians look to the United States as the potential savior for what Mason calls a "branch of the American tree." Civil war continues to ravage Liberia, a nation of 3 million founded in 1822 by freed U.S. slaves.

Liberians have thronged U.S. military advisers, chanting "George Bush, we want peace," since they arrived in this capital city last week to assess logistics ahead of a possible U.S. deployment of peacekeepers or humanitarian relief.

President George W. Bush says he has not decided yet whether to deploy troops, and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with him today in Washington to discuss the conflict.

In Monrovia - named for U.S. President James Monroe - a growing number of civilians already depend on the United States for safety in a war that has killed thousands and forced more than a million others to flee their homes.

At an embassy auxiliary compound that once housed diplomats and is still guarded by the U.S. Embassy's Liberian security staff, more than 1,000 people have been allowed to build bamboo and canvas shelters.

Reed Harris, 41, a paralegal assistant taking refuge in the embassy compound, said he did not feel safe anywhere else.

"Liberia is an American country, so it is logical to ask the U.S. government for help. We will stay here until the war is over," he said.

At Providence Baptist, built in 1839 and expanded in the 1970s with the help of sister churches in the United States, the Rev. Joseph J. Roberts described America as "our big brother" who "has the power to end our suffering."

Similar views were echoed at downtown street stalls that sell cornbread, biscuits, doughnuts and pancakes, where the main topic of conversation was whether American troops would be sent.

The United States spent hundreds of millions of aid dollars on Liberia during the Cold War, when the country housed a major Voice of America transmitter and an airstrip that was an emergency landing and refueling point for U.S. aircraft.

From its establishment as a republic in 1847 until two decades ago, Liberia was ruled by members of the nation's elite, slave descendants still sometimes referred to here as "pioneers." They battled frequently with local tribes and spread American customs, not unlike the French and British who imprinted their cultures when they were colonial powers in Africa.

In 1980, a coup by Samuel Doe turned the reins of power over to his ethnic Krahn tribe, making him the first president of Liberia without U.S. freed slave heritage. Nine years later, rebels under Charles Taylor, a former gas station attendant and Massachusetts prison escapee of mixed Liberian and U.S. heritage, launched a bloody seven-year war. His 1997 election win is attributed to threats he would relaunch the fighting if he lost. Taylor's foes then regrouped and launched a rebellion to topple him, steadily gaining ground and twice entering the capital during deadly forays last month.

"We are tired of looking over our shoulders," said Mason. "We want America to come here and free us from all the warlords."
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.