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Wheelbarrows hold Monrovia together
( 2003-09-29 14:33) (Agencies)

Thousands of men weave through the mortar-blasted streets of Liberia's capital, pushing wheelbarrows laden with sacks of rice, onions or anything else in need of fast delivery. They are an industry born of war, and perhaps a solution for the future.

In a city where mail and delivery vans barely exist, it's the 8,000 card-carrying men of the National Wheelbarrow Operator Union of Liberia who keep things moving, trundling their green one-wheelers along trash-choked thoroughfares.

Charging as little as a quarter for a delivery, barrow men can make $5 a day not bad considering 85 percent of Liberia's 3 million people live on less than $1 a day.

"Pushing the wheel," as wheelbarrow work is known, got its start after Liberia descended into near-constant civil war 14 years ago and fighters hijacked any car they could get their hands on.

Now it is being eyed as the kind of no-collar labor that could offer a livelihood to some of those very same fighters who know no skill beyond handling a gun.

The Aug. 18 peace deal following ex-President Charles Taylor's flight into exile is meant to end a conflict in which government effectively died and it fell to unions, civic groups and churches to improvise order from chaos.

"I used to be a fighter, but now I'm pushing the wheel," says 24-year old Prince Wilson.

Wilson says he was a child soldier for Taylor until he was 11, when Taylor's forces killed his parents.

Later, for lack of other options, he stepped between the handles of a wheelbarrow.

"It's not good work, but I have no skills," he says.

Taking the guns from fighters and plugging them back into society is "one of the greatest challenges in Liberia," according to a U.N. report that estimates the number of armed combatants at 27,000 and 38,000.

"We need to get the gun culture out of their head," says Melvin Dennis, an assistant minister in Liberia's looted Labor Ministry. "They think that with an AK-47, they can get what they want. We need to change that."

Liberia's 22 trade unions, representing 40,000 largely low-skilled workers such as tailors, transport workers and farmers, have an important part to play.

"Soap-making. Carpentry. Put them in short-term skills training," says Dennis.

Or wheelbarrows.

Matthew Leeco is the 63-year-old president of the union, founded Aug. 12, 1989. Sitting in his dilapidated office, without electricity like the rest of the blighted city, he recalls that during the fighting "There were wheelbarrows carrying people to hospitals, injured people, pregnant women." It became known as the "push-push" ambulance system.

As Liberia's economy failed, businesses closed and unemployment hit 80 percent.

But the wheelbarrow pushers muscled on and the government recognized their union in 1997, the year Taylor became president. Rebels took up arms against him two years later.

In June the rebels began a new wave of attacks and on Aug. 11 Taylor went into exile in Nigeria, handing over to his deputy Moses Blah, to be replaced on Oct. 14 by a power-sharing government leading to elections in 2004.

The efficiency of the wheelbarrow industry stands out against the backdrop of Liberia's chaos. Each operator is assigned to one of 20 zones in Monrovia,

A city of 1 million, and has a number painted on his barrow. Operators often add a verse from the Bible.

But since the June attacks began, weekly union dues of 5 Liberian dollars worth about 12 cents have gone uncollected, says Leeco. That means no funds for the union's repair services or dispute-mediation, he says.

The barrows are made overseas, and Leeco hopes international organizations will help buy more of them for rental. Or ex-fighters can buy one for $35, if Liberia follows neighboring Sierra Leone's example and does a weapons buyback.

"If the man from fighting hasn't learned anything, they can come and push the wheel," says Leeco. "They'll earn money and feel fine and not think about hurting people."

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