BEO GARNAGLAY, Liberia (Reuters) - In a remote village in Liberia’s Nimba Mountains, about 20 men armed with machetes prepare to walk through the forest into neighbouring Ivory Coast — to fight for anyone willing to pay them.
Most are impoverished former fighters from Liberia’s civil war of the late 1980s and 1990s. Now they want employment in Ivory Coast, in turmoil since a disputed November 28 election that has threatened to rekindle its own civil war of 2002-03.
Some wear women’s wigs, in a throwback to Liberia’s conflict when fighters believed such fetishes could deflect bullets.
They’re ready to fight for either side in the Ivorian stand-off — incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo or his rival Alassane Ouattara — and they may be among much larger numbers heading over the border in the hope of fighting.
“We have been in this business for many years,” said one of them, a 33-year-old who referred to himself as Jack. “We know how to fight well and if Gbagbo or Ouattara’s men can employ us to fight, that will be good.”
Most fought in a rebellion launched not far away in 1989 by Charles Taylor, who is now on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in yet another conflict in Sierra Leone.
In Ivory Coast, Gbagbo is resisting international pressure to quit after provisional election results showed he lost to Ouattara, provoking the standoff in which more than 170 people have already died.
Ouattara’s camp has accused Gbagbo of employing hundreds of Liberian mercenaries in deadly raids on pro-Ouattara neighbourhoods. Gbagbo’s camp denies the charge, but diplomats and security sources say there may be up 1,000 on his payroll.
Worries are rising that any escalation of the Ivorian conflict will spread instability beyond its borders, into a region struggling to recover from three civil wars in a decade.
Human rights groups have said Liberian mercenaries may have played a role in recent street clashes in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, a charge Gbagbo’s government has denied.
Ivorians fearing the worst are moving in the other direction, crossing into Liberia as refugees and straining the resources of local populations.
The United Nations said on Thursday it had registered more than 18,000 refugees along the Liberian border.
Jack heads his group of Liberian men, and said walking to Ivory Coast to fight is an economic necessity for many. None carried guns — hoping they will receive them if they are hired.
“Some of us are not working. We fought for different groups, but many of us that are here fought for Charles Taylor’s group,” he says. “Our government here disarmed us, but they have refused to take us into the new army.”
Another of his group, who called himself Black Car and wore an woman’s wig, ends the interview. “Let us move on. These people will tell the world that we are going to fight,” he says “We are going on a mission and we need to do all we can to be successful for us to come back to help our families.”
Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries, still recovering from its civil war, and the average citizen lives on less than $1 a day.
Early this month, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf called on Liberians to keep out of the Ivorian crisis.
A senior security official in the Liberian government said on Thursday “the government of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did not sanction any person to go into that place to fight.”
“As you know, we have had war and many of the ex-fighters are here. Some of them are into good ventures, but for some, they take fighting to be part of their life,” he told Reuters.
“But if anyone is caught, they will be dealt with in line with our constitution,” he said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Another security source close to the Liberian border said it was difficult to estimate the numbers of mercenaries crossing the porous frontier. He said there was some concern that the crisis in Ivory Coast would rekindle ethnic tensions in Liberia.
“Those from Loguatuo along the side here are for Ouattara, while those to Grand Gedeh side, further east, are for Gbagbo. That is a complex thing to control here,” he said.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tim Cocks/David Stamp