"Always in the crunch they are not there," says one Liberian about the United States and its share of responsibility for the bloodletting in his country  

On a Saturday morning in June the Liberian port of Buchanan was sweltering in the dense tropical humidity of West Africa's rainy season. Four small boys entered a tea shop on the city's main street. Dressed in baggy jeans and grimy T-shirts, not much taller than the loaded AK-47 assault rifles they cradled in their arms, they shuffled heavily in big brown military boots that on them resembled the outsize paws of a puppy. "How the day?" one of them muttered. He lifted his fingers to his mouth. The husband and wife who own the shop dutifully fetched some bananas and buttered some rolls. Without so much as a word of thanks, much less payment, the boys swaggered out into the street, savoring their breakfast as they walked.

Two years after the much-loathed Samuel K. Doe was captured by a rebel gang and tortured to death, Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves, and for a century and a half America's closest ally in black Africa, is in thrall to armed children and teenagers, to con artists, embezzlers, and murderers, and to ghosts of its peculiar past.

The young boys in Buchanan are soldiers in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the rebel force that launched a genocidal war against Doe's despotic regime in 1989 and that now controls most of the country outside Monrovia, the capital. They are among the 570 members of the Small Boys Unit, which is attached to the personal security force of Charles Taylor, the rebel leader. They are not paid. They get what they want with their guns. Many of the boys are orphans of the war, Taylor told me the day after I saw them in the tea shop. "Some of them saw their mothers wrapped in blankets, tied up, poured with kerosene, and burned alive. We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble. It's a means of control."

Charles McArthur Taylor is an Americo-Liberian, descended from the freed slaves who founded Liberia in 1847. Buchanan, like Monrovia, fifty miles up the coast, was named after an American President. For well over a century Americans acquiesced in and profited from the exclusionary rule of the Americo-Liberians. For decades Americans trained and equipped the armed forces, which seized power in 1980. The United States then contributed $500 million in aid, which helped soldiers of Samuel Doe's minority Krahn tribe to bludgeon their rivals into submission. With abuses mounting and alarm bells sounding, U.S. officials were memorably obfuscatory. And when civil war finally came to Liberia, U.S. Navy ships carrying 2,000 Marines floated off the coast as the slaughter intensified, declining to intervene. For Liberians it has been a case of unrequited love.

The country is now split, with two governments, two economies, three currencies, and at least four armed factions, including some 20,000 armed "fighters" hustling for survival without pay and with much blood on their hands—for which they would just as soon not be held accountable. Rival militias are proliferating. Profiteers are milking the stalemate and ravaging mines and forests. Some 700,000 refugees remain in limbo in neighboring countries. There is no immediate prospect of a peaceful resolution that might reunify the country. Optimistic predictions have consistently proved wrong. Schedules for disarmament and elections have come and gone. The forces at play and interests at stake suggest to many Liberians that protracted military conflict is increasingly likely. "I am getting pessimistic," Amos Sawyer, Liberia's interim President, at the head of a government that controls Monrovia and little else, told me. "I hope to God that I'm wrong."

WHEN I FIRST visited Liberia, in 1986, there was no mistaking a bloody disaster in the making. Samuel Doe had been an unknown, semiliterate twenty-eight-year-old master sergeant when he shot his way into power in 1980. Casting himself as the liberator of Liberia's indigenous masses, he promised to put an end to the corrupt and oppressive domination by the Americo-Liberian elite and to establish a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth. He pledged to return the country to civilian rule. But he soon proved to be a lawless and brutal tyrant. In October of 1985 he brazenly stole the election that was to have ushered in civilian rule. A month later he put down a widely applauded and nearly successful coup attempt with horrific violence, killing hundreds—mostly members of the Gio and Mano tribes, from the remote border region of Nimba County.

Doe's signature innovation was to ethnicize the armed forces of Liberia, stacking the officer corps and key units with Krahn. In the manifold upheavals of Doe's decade-long rule, Krahn soldiers responded to repeated protests, plots, and failed coups by murdering, raping, and pillaging on a huge scale. After the failed coup of November 12, 1985, Krahn soldiers rounded up hundreds of Gios and Manos presumed to have supported the coup attempt. Eyewitnesses told harrowing stories. The coup leader, a Gio man, was captured, castrated, and dismembered. "I fear," a Gio historian told me when I visited Nimba County in March of 1986, "that if and when this man [Doe] is violently removed from power, it will be recorded in history that there was once a tribe called Krahn in Liberia."

Doe by then was also well on his way to bankrupting the country. It is estimated that in ten years he and his cronies stole about $300 million—an amount roughly equal to half the anemic gross domestic product for their final year at the till. Doe himself amassed a BCCI account in London worth $5.6 million. Liberia's distinctive American panache helped him establish a lucrative money-laundering racket—the U.S. dollar remains legal tender. At a time when Liberia's legitimate economy was contracting almost by half, the number of banks in Monrovia rose from six to fourteen.

Yet even those who predicted all-out civil war scarcely imagined the depths to which Liberia would finally descend in 1990. Charles Taylor's rebellion began with barely 150 insurgents. In less than a year it consumed not just Doe but many thousands of civilians in an orgy of killing and destruction. More than a million Liberians—half the population—abandoned their homes. Much of the country was bombed, burned, and looted into ruins.

Taylor's war had been widely popular when it began. Everyone wanted to get rid of Doe. But Taylor's method was to exploit the genocidal rage of the Gio and the Mano. He began with mostly Gio exiles, including Sam Dokie, now Taylor's Minister of Internal Affairs. Dokie had been in exile for six years, after twice failing to topple Doe. Two of his brothers had been murdered by Doe's Krahn agents; one of them, Lewis Dokie, was flogged to death after the 1985 coup attempt. "We all came back with that revengeful attitude," Sam Dokie told me during my most recent visit, "that what was done to us must be done to them to pay the Krahn people back. So we fought a very bitter war."

Doe, predictably, responded with a counterinsurgency force, mostly Krahn, that went on yet another rampage in Nimba County, killing, looting, raping, maiming, burning villages, driving tens of thousands of Gios and Manos into the bush. The result was exactly what Taylor might have hoped for. Gios and Manos by the thousands rushed to join Taylor's forces. And he welcomed them. "As the NPFL came in," Taylor told me, "we didn't even have to act. People came to us and said, 'Give me a gun. How can I kill the man who killed my mother?" Within months the band of 150 trained insurgents had snowballed into a marauding force of thousands, mostly illiterate, barely trained but heavily armed, seeking liberty, vengeance, and booty.

No one has the slightest idea how many people died in the ensuing bloodbath. Conservative estimates put the number of casualties at 20,000 to 25,000. That would be about one percent of Liberia's population of 2.5 million. But a visitor soon realizes that virtually everyone lost a relative. I took a poll of the staff at the El Meson hotel in Monrovia. Harrison, the laundry man, had a brother killed in crossfire between the army and the NPFL; his father died of sickness and starvation. Saybah, the chambermaid, lost two brothers and her father to the army. Boakai Sambollah, the maintenance man who managed to produce hot running water in my room on my last weekend, lost a first cousin in an NPFL ambush—"They wanted his car and he refused to give it, so they shot him dead," he said—and his brother-in-law died of cholera. Wleh Nypen, a security guard, lost his brother, a rebel fighter, in a clash with ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force that guards Monrovia; his mother died of cholera. Rebecca, a receptionist, lost a cousin to starvation. Joseph, her weekend replacement, lost a brother and a sister, the sister's husband, who was Krahn, and their three children—all killed by Taylor's men; the grown-ups were shot, he said, and the children had their throats slit.

Doe's home county, Grand Gedeh, was decimated. More than 100,000 Krahn refugees fled into neighboring Ivory Coast, telling stories of wanton murder. The climactic battle for Monrovia, in the summer and fall of 1990, degenerated into a slaughter. Water stopped running. Electricity was cut off. Food ran out. Civilians scavenged for weeds. NPFL rebels, high on marijuana and weirdly decked out in women's wigs and dresses looted from stores ("We fight to loot" was their motto), shot people who "smelled" Krahn. Krahn soldiers committed epic massacres, at one point killing 600 Gio refugees holed up in a Lutheran church. As civilians fled, soldiers and rebels alike looted virtually every building: homes, stores, offices, government ministries, hospitals, embassies, churches—and banks. Nearly $100 million in cash disappeared, almost half of all the money in circulation. After Doe was finally captured and killed, surviving Krahn soldiers set about burning the city down. "No Doe, no Monrovia" was their motto.

Doe was killed not by Taylor but by a breakaway rebel faction led by Brigadier General Prince Y. Johnson, a former Taylor ally who managed to beat him to the capital. Johnson is by all accounts an alcoholic psychopath, renowned for personally executing friends and foes alike in fits of pique. In September of 1990 Johnson's rebels ambushed Doe as he was paying a visit to the headquarters of ECOMOG. They took him back to their base, where they conducted a frenzied, boozy interrogation that was recorded on videotape.

The hour-long video is readily available in Monrovia. It is a lurid document. Doe sits on the ground, naked and flabby, with his legs stretched out before him, bloodied from a gunshot wound. His elbows are bound tightly together behind his back. A swarm of sweaty, glassy-eyed rebels circle the unfortunate despot, shouting and hooting in derision. "What? What?" Doe says repeatedly, straining to hear the questions above the din. "What did you do with the Liberian people's money?" Johnson demands, cracking open yet another can of beer. "Prince, gentlemen, we are all one," Doe pleads. "Cut off his ears!" Johnson cries, and the troops set upon the howling prisoner with machetes. Doe is said to have "died of his wounds."

LIBERIA'S WAR was not a purely tribal affair. Many victims of the NPFL were not Krahn but were people of means, targeted because they wore fine clothes or lived in nice houses. Government functionaries, merchants, and especially Mandingoes—Muslims known for their entrepreneurial skills—were all presumed to have collaborated with Doe. The Krahn suffered disproportionately not just because they were Krahn but because their leaders appropriated an inequitable and oppressive system and exaggerated its worst features. The Americo-Liberians built that system. Ultimately the Krahn, traditionally one of Liberia's poorest tribes, took the fall for more than a century of simmering hatred born of envy. It is a sinister irony that Charles Taylor and many who bankrolled his war against that system are themselves Americo-Liberians and others who had been born or coopted into the ruling caste.

"We have been angry for a long time," said Blamo Nelson, who heads SELF, a homegrown relief organization that now feeds Monrovia. Nelson's mother starved to death during the war. "Look at the Doe video. I identified with those crazy people. We all wear masks. Behind those masks is a mad, horrified people."

Patrick Seyon, the president of the University of Liberia, who in 1981 was flogged twice a day for eight days by Doe's agents, emphasized the deep historical roots of the war. "Those who found themselves in power after 1980 went along with the world that had been set in place by the freed American slaves," Seyon said. "No one saw that there was something systemic in the level of inequality that existed. They followed right in line."

The university campus is a modest collection of tan cement-block buildings directly across the street from the executive mansion, on the edge of downtown Monrovia. It has been a focal point of conflict for years. In the 1970s it was the scene of mounting dissension against the Americo-Liberian regime of William R. Tolbert. In the 1980s the campus was roiled by repression and protest under Doe. Then, in the summer of 1990, the university was occupied by Taylor's forces, seeking in vain to take the mansion. The campus suffered heavy damage and extensive looting, and was closed for two years.

Alaric Tokpa, the chairman of the political-science faculty, is a former student leader who was jailed by Doe and sentenced to be executed by firing squad. His sentence was commuted and he later spent five months in the notorious Belle Yella work camp for distributing leaflets on the campus. Tokpa invited me to meet with a class, which grew to more than a hundred students eager to share their views with an American visitor.

I asked them how many believed that the United States had backed Doe's coup in 1980. A hundred hands went up. Then I asked how many believed that the United States was behind Taylor's invasion in 1989. Again, a hundred hands. How many believed that the United States was behind Prince Johnson when he broke away from Taylor and beat him to the capital? Roars of laughter. What a naive question, the students said—of course the United States was behind Johnson. Finally I asked how many believed that the United States should have intervened directly to stop the war. Here there was a diversity of opinion. A small minority said no.

The students' views were remarkable as much for what they said about Liberians as for what they said about America. There is no hard evidence to support their suspicions. Yet the perception that Americans pull strings behind every scene is widely shared in Liberia. Many believe that the United States could solve Liberia's problems if only it had the will. "The U.S. could have sent in a hundred Marines and everyone would have listened to them," Taylor told me. When I repeated this to Amos Sawyer, he said, "I agree."

America has in fact been a central player in Liberia ever since the freed slaves arrived in 1822. Liberia was the brainchild of the American Colonization Society—white Americans with mixed motives, some philanthropic, others nakedly racist. Not a few of them feared the likely results of emancipation, and they sought to establish a mechanism for ridding the United States of slavery's progeny. The small number of black pioneers who took up the society's offer and returned to Africa likewise had mixed motives: some were missionaries, some were entrepreneurs, and some merely despaired of a better life in America. Their small settlement on the Atlantic coast of Africa was secured by a blend of co-optation and coercion.

White governors ruled the settlement on behalf of the Colonization Society until 1847, when Liberia was proclaimed Africa's first independent republic and returned settlers took charge. The new country's motto, "The love of liberty brought us here," survives to this day. But the years of settler rule were characterized by exploitation of the indigenous peoples, who still constitute more than 97 percent of Liberia's population. Half the national income accrued to less than five percent of the citizens. The ruling True Whig Party maintained a kind of feudal oligarchy, monopolizing political power. While the settlers along the coast developed an elaborate life-style reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and a society of Masons, the indigenous peasants endured poverty and neglect. Exploitation reached a peak in the 1920s, when high officials in the government were implicated in a flourishing international slave trade and domestic forced-labor market.

Among those linked to forced labor was the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which operated the world's largest rubber plantation in Liberia. After the First World War, at a time of prodigious growth for the automobile industry in America, Firestone secured a ninety-nine-year lease on a million acres in Liberia. The Liberian elite were experiencing acute economic difficulties and hoped to solidify their position by strengthening their ties to American capital. Firestone, in turn, assured itself of a stable source of rubber by becoming deeply enmeshed in the political and economic culture of the Americo-Liberians. The company provided spacious homes for government officials. It retained True Whig leaders on the company payroll. By 1950 Firestone was responsible for a quarter of Liberia's tax revenues.

The combination of graft and repression reached its peak during the prolonged regime of President William V. S. Tubman, who ruled from 1944 to 1971. Tubman is said to have appropriated more money for ceremonial bands than for public health; he devoted more than one percent of the national budget to the upkeep of his presidential yacht. Tubman created a personality cult based on an elaborate network of kinship and patronage, personal loyalty, the manipulation and co-optation of tribal chiefs—and force. He built an extensive secret-police network, and laid the foundation for much of what was to come under Doe: an individual autocracy rooted in weak institutions and contempt for the rule of law.

Tubman also established himself as a reliable ally of the United States in the early stages of the Cold War. It was during Tubman's rule that the United States built the Voice of America relay station in Liberia, for broadcasts throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and the Omega navigation tower, for directing shipping up and down the Atlantic coast. Liberia became the main transfer point for intelligence gathered in Africa. U.S. military planes were granted landing and refueling rights on twenty-four hours' notice at Robertsfield, built by Americans during the Second World War.

Tubman's successor, William Tolbert, made some effort to liberalize the political machinery, but his reforms merely heightened expectations that could not be satisfied within the existing system. One memorable confrontation in Monrovia—in April of 1979, almost exactly a year before Doe's coup—highlighted the wide gap between the ruling elite and the masses. At a time of intensifying hardship for most Liberians and increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth by the elite, Tolbert announced an increase in the price of rice, the Liberian staple. When it became apparent that Tolbert and members of his family stood to benefit personally from the price increases, thousands of Liberians rose up in a series of street demonstrations in Monrovia. Tolbert ordered the police to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. More than forty protesters were killed and hundreds were injured. The rice riots created a ground swell of ill will from which Tolbert never recovered.

The agent of change was the army. Originally called the Frontier Force, Liberia's army was created in 1908 as a means of securing Liberia's borders against foreign encroachment. President William Howard Taft in 1912 sent the first U.S. training officers to help out. The army assumed two essential responsibilities: tax collection—one might say "taxation without representation"—and suppression of dissent. In their first century the Americo-Liberians fought twenty-three brutal wars against uprisings, and the United States intervened directly in nine of them. By 1951 the United States had established a permanent mission in Liberia to train the armed forces. Many top officers were sent to America for training. Doe himself was trained by the Green Berets. Its enlisted ranks composed mainly of illiterate peasants, school dropouts, and street toughs, the army was a malignant organism in the body politic.

The nature of the 1980 coup itself was an omen. On April 12, 1980, Doe and his collaborators—the youngest was sixteen—stormed the executive mansion, captured President Tolbert in his pajamas, and disemboweled him. Ten days later, in an indelible public spectacle, thirteen members of Tolbert's Cabinet were tied to telephone poles on the beach and mowed down by a drunken firing squad. There followed weeks of random bloodletting in which hundreds were killed.

"When the coup took place in 1980, it was an exact reflection of the kind of army that the system had produced," Conmany Wesseh, an adviser to the interim government who spent the decade under Doe in exile, told me. "Doe was the embodiment of everything that had happened before. The difference with Doe was a difference in scale, not quality. If Tolbert did it twice, Doe did it a thousand times."

Nevertheless, the United States contributed half a billion dollars in economic and military aid in the first five years of Doe's regime—a third of Liberia's operating budget. President Ronald Reagan invited Doe to the White House—though he embarrassed his guest by introducing him to the press as "Chairman Moe." There was concern that the young soldier and his populist backers might tilt toward Libya or even Moscow. There was also an "implicit bargain," as one American diplomat told me at the time, "that the military would let go if its needs were looked after."

But when the military failed to let go, the Reagan Administration did not challenge the results of the rigged election (the Bush Administration later conceded that they were fraudulent), and never publicly called for an investigation of the horrendous abuses that followed. On the contrary, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, the Administration's chief spokesman on African affairs, issued a series of unforgettable statements during that critical period, about "positive aspects" of the election and about the standards of "a part of the world where the norm is single-party rule," which Liberians to this day regard as plainly racist. In January of 1987 Secretary of State George Shultz passed through Monrovia and praised President Doe's government for what he called "genuine progress" toward democracy. An unmistakable signal went out that as far as the United States was concerned, Doe and his confederates could quite literally get away with murder. And they did—at least for a few more years.

The steamy port of Buchanan is alive with a bustling commerce that seems difficult to credit in a nation reeling from war. Buchanan today is the commercial heart of "Greater Liberia," the area controlled by Charles Taylor and his collaborators. Taylor once worked for Doe's government, as the head of a government purchasing agency. But he fled the country in 1983, after he was charged with embezzlement, and was jailed in Massachusetts while awaiting extradition. He was accused of stealing $900,000 by negotiating bogus contracts with his own front company in New Jersey. He escaped from the Plymouth House of Correction by sawing through window bars in the laundry room and lowering himself to the ground on tied bed sheets. He returned to West Africa, survived two more stretches in jail in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and then assembled his band of fighters for training in Libya before finally launching his war against Doe. Denied the brass ring of power when ECOMOG pushed him out of Monrovia, Taylor now presides, albeit unsteadily, over a countrywide regime best described as organized gangsterism.

The NPFL early on evolved into a lucrative money-making enterprise. Foreign investors—mostly French, Italian, German, and Lebanese, but including some Americans—reportedly have paid Taylor millions in "taxes" for the right to exploit Liberia's timber, rubber, iron ore, gold, and diamond reserves. Taylor is said to have personal bank accounts worth millions of dollars in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere, and he has spent millions more on arms. His NPFL fighters, meanwhile, operate checkpoints and roadblocks where they can extort a better living than they are ever likely to make without guns. Many of them, including the Small Boys Unit, were linked to atrocities during the war and afterward; many have been accused of rape, and of kidnapping and "keeping" women and girls for stretches of as long as a year under threat of death.

There is a great deal of speculation about whether Taylor could actually win a free and fair election. He is, after all, the man who had the wherewithal to topple Doe. And many Liberians regard his ascent to power as inevitable, given the forces at his disposal, and would just as soon let him have power if the alternative is endless stalemate. But Liberians are acutely aware of the brurality of the NPFL. In Buchanan there is palpable tension between the mostly Gio fighters and the mostly Bassa civilian population—another sign that bodes ill for the future. Last March the tension boiled over in street demonstrations after Gio fighters arrested and executed several Bassa men on suspicion of sabotage; Taylor shrewdly allowed the demonstrations to take place, but he did not punish anyone for the executions. A Bassa woman who runs a beer stall in Buchanan—and who, like everyone in the territories under Taylor's control, asked not to be identified—told me, "Everyone in Buchanan is against Taylor." She said her husband was shot and killed by NPFL fighters and her mother starved to death during the war. "They came to fight for our freedom and instead they kill us," she said.

"When Taylor came into Liberia, he had imbibed the Mafia culture," Boima Fahnbulleh, a former Foreign Minister, told me. "Killing without compunction, terror, reduce the mind to a slave, oppose it and you are dead—it became a way of life. People know they are living a lie, but they must go on living."

Then there is the problem of Taylor's ethnicity. If mostly Gios and Manos fought the war, mostly Americo-Liberians and other elites are now enjoying the fruits: men and women with names like Cooper, DeShields, Eastman, Richardson, and Dennis. They live in Gbarnga in a compound of villas built by USAID and abandoned by expatriate agricultural researchers during the war. Taylor and his friends simply appropriated the compound, fixed it up, and moved in. Now they gather nightly on their screened-in porches, turn on their stereos and VCRs, and sip chilled German wine while unpaid Gio fighters in jeans and flip-flops stand guard.

In midwar Taylor abruptly obtained a new middle name: Ghankay, which means "warrior" in the Gola language. He claims to have Gola ancestry. But journalists seeking to confirm this have been unable to find any Golas who remember him. So Taylor has a problem. He has used the Gio and is beholden to them for his power, not to mention his survival, but he is not of them. At least three attempts on his life have been reported to date. Half a dozen prominent Gio politicians—men who might be seen as having a claim to Gio leadership more legitimate than Taylor's—have been murdered under mysterious circumstances. Among them was Jackson Doe, the man who actually won the stolen election in 1985. Taylor has denied any role in these murders, but few Liberians doubt that he was behind them. In the last major round of peace negotiations Taylor insisted on a provision that would allow him to maintain 150 bodyguards of his own even if the NPFL is disarmed. "The man is a cornered rat," Stanton Peabody, a Reuters correspondent and the dean of Liberia's press corps, told me.

My interview with Taylor took place in the living room of his Buchanan mansion. He was an affable host, dressed casually but stylishly in a white shirt, pinstripe pants, and black oxford shoes. "There was no other way to get power from Samuel Doe than to resort to arms," he began. "He killed people. He maimed people. He beheaded people. He raped students. He had wrecked the country. Nothing short of arms would have removed him from power."

I asked if it had not been a reckless war. "Quite the opposite," he said. "Doe had sufficiently antagonized the country with a reign of terror. It must be recorded: It took me two active years of preparation. I knew that unless it was controlled, there would have been a bloodbath." But there was a bloodbath, I noted. "I must say with a high degree of sincerity," he countered, "they did not go after the Krahn as they would have without the training that we provided."

I asked about accountability for war crimes. He had, after all, cited Doe's crimes as justification for the war. "The whole problem is like the chicken and the egg," Taylor said. "Which came first? We cannot go back and [assign] blame. There are too many skeletons in the closet to begin to apportion blame. Forget blame."

Taylor and the NPFL have engaged in an escalating series of clashes with a rival militia, known as ULIMO, mostly Krahn and Mandingo, which is based in Sierra Leone. Taylor also has provided a base for dissidents from neighboring countries who have aided his rebellion. That is one reason that the neighboring countries have joined together to try to contain him. Already his war has spilled over into Sierra Leone, prompting a coup in that country last spring. There have also been clashes with ECOMOG, which under the latest peace agreement is supposed to be disarming Taylor's forces. In an inauspicious encounter with ECOMOG troops in May, NPFL fighters captured six Senegalese soldiers and murdered them, mutilating their corpses. Disarmament, of course, is a precondition for free and fair elections, and Taylor has pledged to disarm his fighters in a succession of peace agreements. It has not happened. When I asked about his earlier pledges, he told me that "total disarmament is baloney; it will never be achieved."

Amos Sawyer sipped a Scotch in his modest apartment in the roach- and rat-infested hotel that houses his government in Monrovia, and explained to me why he is pessimistic.

"We're pursuing the Liberian ideal of democracy as if that were the answer to an insurgency where the quest for power is the overwhelming drive," he said. "If it were a clash of values, or of competing scenarios for the future, then we would be on the right path. But what is at stake is one man's quest for power."

Monrovia today is a gutted and pockmarked vestige of its former self. Nobody is starving anymore—a credit to SELF and to some thirty international relief agencies. The city has the illusory vitality of a population swelled to nearly double its normal size by refugees, half a million traumatized, brutalized people hustling on the thin edge of survival. The productive sector of the economy is finished. There is 80 percent unemployment. When I was there, the civil service had been reduced by half and the remaining workers had not been paid for months.

Sawyer's Interim Government of National Unity, known as IGNU, administers the city, backed by ECOMOG. Installed by Liberia's West African neighbors to restore order and pave the way for elections, IGNU is a coalition of interested parties, well-intentioned and otherwise. Like many coalition governments, it has proved unwieldy. It includes a handful of scholarly idealists like Sawyer at the top, and by all accounts a great many opportunists and profiteers, many of them holdovers from the past, who are milking the stalemate, embezzling millions. To Sawyer's credit, corruption scams are being exposed almost daily by a raucous press, and prosecutions have been initiated by Philip Banks, his Yale-educated Justice Minister. Sawyer, who was jailed under Doe and spent five years in exile in Washington, D.C., and at the University of Indiana, has agreed not to run in the still-unscheduled election. He is a good man by nearly all accounts, but is accused of being ineffective; in fairness, he may be, as befits a scholar, better suited to analyzing Liberia's intractable crisis than to solving it.

Prince Johnson and his gang are confined to a suburban compound. Doe's former troops and some 30,000 dependents are confined to their barracks. Every few weeks the sense of normalcy is shaken by an unexplained grenade attack on a social club or a fire in a newspaper office. Neither at war nor at peace, the people wait edgily for signs of progress, dreading the day when ECOMOG tires of the stalemate and leaves, opening the door for Taylor and his bunch. In the meantime, virtually the entire population is surviving on food donated by the United States.

Iq do not accept that the United States was in any way responsible for what happened here," says the former ambassador Peter De Vos, who served through much of the war. "It was a Liberian show. To attribute this to the U.S. is beyond the pale. It's a myth, folklore." Conceding that America looms large in Liberian history, he adds, "I think there is a natural assumption among the Liberians that whenever there is something bad, it is not their fault but America's fault. I think it's an excuse."

By the time Liberia's war escalated, it may well have been too late for the United States to intervene constructively. It is difficult to see how U.S. Marines could have waded ashore in Monrovia without being sucked into a quagmire. Certainly there would have been no domestic support for risking American lives in an obscure country that most Americans couldn't find on a map. There is in fact no interest group for Liberia in Washington.

But the United States cannot so easily disavow responsibility for Liberia's tragedy, for if the conflict had its roots in decades of inequity and oppression, America has been a critical player, from the country's founding to Reagan's winking at Doe's electoral subversion. "The United States contributed by helping Mr. Doe to build up his military machinery," Amos Sawyer told me. "And I know from personal, experience that when the forces of democracy and human rights tried to mobilize through the election process, the Americans were with us step by step. There was every assurance that the American government was standing behind the democratic forces that seemed to be preparing to unseat Doe. But at the end of the day, when even kids in the streets knew that Mr. Doe had lost the election, where were the Americans? They built up expectations and then abandoned the forces for democracy. Always in the crunch they are not there. Then it becomes a Liberian problem."

Congress finally began to shut off the spigot of aid in 1986, partly because of human-rights concerns, partly because of budgetary constraints. For now the United States is supporting the efforts of the West African states to work out a solution to the stalemate and providing some financial backing for ECOMOG. Optimists in June pointed to the fact that the cease-fire had held for nearly two years. Roads between Monrovia and Taylor-controlled territory had been open since January. The West African states appeared to be unifying behind a goal of pressuring Taylor to disarm, possibly with sanctions. "There has been tremendous progress," Peter De Vos asserted. But in August ULIMO launched an offensive against Taylor's forces, driving them out of at least two western counties and advancing to within nine miles of Monrovia. Thousands, displaced by the fighting, streamed into the capital. In late September NPFL forces were accused of massacring some thirty people in a suburb of Monrovia. Three ECOMOG peace-keepers were killed in a subsequent clash with the NPFL. The black-market rate for American dollars climbed from ten to nearly twenty times the official exchange rate. Elections were postponed yet again. Talk of sanctions against Taylor evaporated. "The latest outbreak of the Liberian conflict ... has left a regional peace plan in tatters," Stanton Peabody reported for Reuters.

The country is in a knot. So many people have so much blood on their hands that few are likely to disarm and risk having to answer for what they have done. Not the least consideration for most of the armed protagonists is survival. "Those who seek change through democratic means have limited power," the political scientist Alaric Tokpa says, "because those who control power realize that their continued control is a life-and-death struggle." Meanwhile, more than half a million Liberian refugees remain stranded, destabilizing neighboring countries. Krahn refugees in particular are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. A generation of children has been brutalized, witnesses to the most extreme violence, educated in little except tribal hatred. "We are sitting on a volcano," says Kofie Woods, the director of Liberia's fledgling Justice and Peace Commission. "We can either cool it or it can heat up and explode all over again."