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Liberia's disabled tell horrifying tales
( 2003-08-23 16:40) (Agencies)

When Sao Setuah's family fled from Sierra Leone's brutal rebels in 1998, the wheelchair-bound boy, then 8, was left behind.

Five years later, Setuah found himself between bullets again, one of thousands cowering in a Liberian center for the disabled as Liberia's civil war raged around them, their lifeline to food and American aid severed.

Setuah's wide, easy grin is as crooked as his legs, injured in infancy in circumstances of which he knows little. After his family abandoned him, a priest brought him to Our Lady of Fatima Center, a Liberian clinic teaching skills and self-respect to 300 disabled Africans, run by an American Catholic nun.

In recent weeks, fighting between rebel and government forces engulfed the compound as insurgents swept toward Liberia's capital, Monrovia, only 20 miles to the southwest.

"It was very terrible; people were so afraid, rockets everywhere," Setuah said of the battle outside the walls that sent 4,000 refugees rushing into the center, overwhelming its food stores.

"First we ate palm cabbage," Sao said. "But that didn't fill our stomachs. Then banana with kiss meat" a local word for swamp snails, named for the method of separating meat from shell. By mid-July, only water filled gnawing stomachs, clinic administrators said.

In peacetime, the handicapped learn reading, typing, sewing and other skills. They are also taught that neither sorcery nor malevolent spirits twisted their bodies, as many have been told. Many have fallen victim to polio, a disease with a simple vaccine that has been eradicated in rich nations.

The ramshackle center of squat buildings and overgrown grasses was founded in 1988 by 78-year-old Sister Mary Sponsa Beltram. Beltram has been stranded in the United States since late May as rebels launched the first of three deadly offensives on Monrovia in early June.

The fighting outside clinic walls sowed fear, disrupted schooling, and left teachers unpaid for months. Fighting made it impossible to restock coffers with the roughly $6,000 needed each month to run the center. Fully 80 percent comes from benefactors in the United States.

"Throughout the night, we watched the bullets all around. After that came the hunger," said Victor Wilson, who runs the center in Beltram's absence.

Around July 13, "there was not a piece of food. I told the children to drink water. There was a time when they couldn't move," said Wilson, his own legs withered by polio.

Soon after, fighting eased in the area and Wilson was able to get a few provisions.

Warlord President Charles Taylor, elected in 1997, fled into exile on Aug. 11, handing power to his deputy, Moses Blah. Rebels lifted their siege of Monrovia last week, abandoning the crucial port and pulling out of the bloodied city, which saw widespread hunger and well over 1,000 civilian deaths from fighting.

West African peacekeepers are arriving, backed by a small U.S. Marine contingent, and a peace deal was signed on Monday, meant to replace Blah and end 14 years of conflict.

On Thursday, the U.N. World Food Program took advantage of the tense peace to deliver 25 tons of cornmeal to Our Lady of Fatima Center and its refugees.

It was the first delivery by the agency outside Monrovia in weeks. No cooking oil, sugar or protein-rich foods are available, as warehouses were heavily looted during the fighting.

Beltram, reached by phone in Hazelton, Pa., said she was relieved her charges were OK. Having worked in Africa since 1970, she wants to return to Liberia as early as next week.

"I'm really proud of them," she said. "Aren't my kids great?"

Just inside the center's gates, handicapped children played checkers on boards perched on wheelchair armrests. They plaited each other's hair and gossiped.

Up a hill smelling of clover, under a sky filled with storm clouds, thousands of refugees lined up for what was for many their first real food in weeks.

Artillery may no longer rumble, but bellies do, refugees and aid workers distributing the scarce food said.

Many worry the fighting will reignite, as it has continually for 14 years since Taylor launched his 1989-1996 insurgency. Widespread hunger will continue, particularly in the countryside, where fighting persists, aid workers say.

"Since the war ended, we're suffering from hunger, not the gun," said 27-year old Theresa Collie, a 1-year-old baby swaddled to her back.

"No hospitals are open. No food. No clothes. First the war must finish."

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