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LIBERIA: Liberia recruits a new army

by Elizabeth BluntBBC News

Every morning at the moment there are two small near-riots in the centre of Monrovia.

One is outside the barracks, where a heaving, jostling queue of young men and women are trying to get inside to join the new army.

The other is at the defence ministry, where almost everyone who ever served in the old army now seems to be trying to sort out their paperwork and claim a pension.

Second Lieutenant James Collie, who joined the army in 1967, claims not to have been paid since August 1996.

"I don't want to be part of the new army, but I want to be retired, in keeping with my age.

"At the time the war destroyed all the documents, so when the government came into being they decided to re-document everybody so that they can be benefited. And most of our soldiers that you see around here were not present."

"I was with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and during the war everything was destroyed, so there was no pay at the time when you were at the battle-front, no money being paid to you at that time."

'Irregular soldiers'

Alan Doss is head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia. It is his men that the new army will replace. He has been watching bemused as they try to sort out the claims.

The problem is that the old Armed Forces of Liberia were also American trained, and they were no good at all at defending their country. The only thing they were good at was going round frightening people.

"You have the regular soldiers, you have the short-term irregulars, who were recruited for specific units at different times and by different people, and they all think they are entitled. Plus you have a huge number of officers. I'm told that at one stage the army had 600-700 colonels.

"You have officers who were recruited before the Second World War who are still on active duty, apparently. So it's been quite a job sorting this out.

"There will always be grievances. They have been paid, but obviously not everybody is happy."

They certainly aren't - at least not the ones I met.

"We are already being separated from the old soldiers, and they call us irregular soldiers, whereas we were recruited by law," said one man.

"They are offering us $540, and we feel too insulted.

"We need our money. But we cannot get our money!"

If they still want to serve, they can apply to join the new army, now being recruited and trained by American instructors.

But they will get no preference and they will have to start again at the beginning, which means going along to the barracks and joining the queue of thousands of other young men and women, all applying to join the army.

New hope

In the relative calm on the other side of the barracks gates, instructors working for the American defence contractors DynCorp International were putting some of the would-be recruits through their paces.

Those inside had already passed the push-ups and the sit-ups.

Now they were setting out on four laps of the parade ground.

As the recruits started on their run, the DynCorp spokesperson in Monrovia, Renee Hubka, told me what was going on.

"We are here - paid by the US State Department - to recruit, vet and train 2,000 young Liberians for the new Armed Forces of Liberia; that's how many the Liberian government has decided it can afford," she said.

The problem is that the old Armed Forces of Liberia were also American trained, and they were no good at all at defending their country.

The only thing they were good at was going round frightening people.

Renee Hubka said it was going to be different this time.

"These men are not just going to learn the things we all learn in the military - basic structure, rules and things. They are going to classes to learn rule of law, the constitution, about gender politics of course, about how to treat people. We're also boosting their educational level, so I think that is a big difference from the old AFL."

By now some of the applicants were sweating profusely, but with the American instructor shouting orders, they were getting well into the spirit of things.

"Yes sah!" they chorused as they trooped off for their medical, and then louder still - "Yes SAH!!"

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