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Liberia: Sweet land of liberty now bitter, broken

By Jeff Koinange

CNN's Jeff Koinange
CNN's Jeff Koinange

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Inside Africa's Tumi Makgabo talks to President Bush about in Liberia.
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Area: 43,000 square miles (111,369 square kilometers); a little larger than Ohio

Capital: Monrovia (named for U.S. President James Monroe)

Population (2002 estimate): 3.3 million (95 percent indigenous people; 5 percent descendants of freed American slaves)

Languages: English is official; 16 indigenous

Literacy: 15 percent

Life expectancy: 51.4 years

Economy: Primarily agricultural (rubber, coffee, cocoa, sugar cane) with some mining (iron, diamonds, gold, tin)

Unemployment: 70 percent

Founded: 1822 by the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to resettle freed slaves in Africa.

Independence: 1847, when the American Colonization Society gave up control.

Sources: U.S. State Department, U.S. CIA World Factbook.

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- The first thing that hits you when you get off the plane at Roberts International Airport outside the Liberian capital of Monrovia is the rain.

"When does it stop raining?" we asked more out of conversation than concern.

"In three months time," said the old man carrying our bags. We laugh, not knowing whether to believe him but hoping inside he is wrong.

As it turned out, for the two weeks we were in Liberia it rained almost every day, sometimes nonstop for two or three days.

On the one day the sun came out, we took a drive around Monrovia.

It was like stepping onto the set of "Mad Max," the 1979 Mel Gibson film in which everything seemed in a perpetual state of destruction or chaos.

No building in sight had escaped hits by mortar fire. Gaping holes replace door frames. Forget about windows. There are none.

Onetime luxury apartment buildings are home to thousands of squatters seeking shelter from a brutal and vicious civil war that has cost nearly 250,000 lives in the past 14 years.

Former five-star hotels that hosted princes and presidents now host the down and out of this macabre unfolding tragedy.

And just as suddenly, the sounds hit you very much like the rain -- chilling sounds of children crying more out of hunger than pain -- cries from adults begging passers-by for food or money or both -- cries from mothers pleading with the world to intervene in Liberia to avoid further bloodshed.

We drive to the city's largest football stadium, home of the country's national team, the Lone Stars.

It is named after a former military head of state, Samuel Doe, who spent the last hours of his life screaming for mercy as he was being tortured by rebel forces. This, after he had vowed to fight to the bitter end.

That is the same thing embattled President Charles Taylor swore to do.

History has an uncanny and wicked sense of humor.

The stadium is now home to tens of thousands of squatters, displaced by raging war in the countryside.

They have come here seeking shelter and refuge, but all they get are torrential rains and the threat of disease.

Aid workers tell us there have already been several deaths from cholera and diarrhea, and that soon they will be carting off the dead by the hour, unless help arrives in the meantime.

We walk onto the field. Little kids are playing a pickup game of soccer, using a 10th of the field.

The rest is taken up by clothes hanging out to dry in the blistering heat. That is, of course, when it is not pouring.

We drive to the other side of town -- a place called Virginia.

Notice how similar the names are to American ones. Liberia was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society as a place to repatriate freed American slaves. Monrovia was named for U.S. President James Monroe, who supported the movement.

The section used to be one of the capital's most luxurious suburbs, complete with beach chalets and golf clubs, boat clubs and casinos.

One sight is striking -- a beautiful structure that could have passed as a hotel in a different era. It was, in fact, just that -- Hotel Africa -- built in 1979 when Liberia's president, William Tolbert, had his turn as chairman of the Organization of African Unity.

So keen was Tolbert to impress his African colleagues that he built 52 European-style chalets along the beach, one for each African president and his entourage.

By the way, Tolbert woke up to the sound of gunfire one morning in April 1980. Before he could summon help, a gun had been pointed to his head and the trigger pulled back. The man holding the gun, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe.

Back then the swimming pool was also a remarkable sight -- built in the shape of the African continent, with a sunken liquor bar all the way from Somalia to Rwanda, with a lifeguard station high above Liberia, of course.

Liberia was then considered one of Africa's most peaceful and stable nations. Today it is arguably one of its most violent.

Like everything in Liberia, Hotel Africa is now more an eyesore than a sight for sore eyes.

Long abandoned due to the raging war, it is literally a shell, a carcass that vultures would not bother picking at anymore.

Everything, it seems, that could be carried or rolled on two or four wheels has been looted -- from the beautiful silk carpet that once graced the foyer to the slot machines that lined the casino walls.

We drive back toward the capital. On the way, we run into a curtain of rain. Hard, pelting rain that seems to want to do everything it can to get into our vehicle.

On each side of the road, displaced Liberians in a steady stream trudge in the mud and puddles. They carry everything they own -- beds, mattresses, pots and pans, even the kitchen sink.

It is a scene that will live in me for a long time, an endless exodus of humanity heading into an uncertain destination and an even more uncertain future.

I turn to our driver. "When does it stop raining?"

"In three months time," he answers, nonchalantly.

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