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Sunday, August 8, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thousands Starve In Liberia's Rain Forest -- Rebel Fighting Has 250,000 Fleeing For Food, And Lives

AP

UPPER LOFA COUNTY, Liberia - Massa Kanneh fled a civil war by hiding in the lushness of the rain forest. She lived on bush yams, wild pumpkins and cassava leaves until the fruit of the jungle began killing her.

Massa, 6, suffers from a special kind of starvation, a lack of protein that disables vital organs and bloats the face, feet and hands to twice their normal size.

Relief agencies say an estimated 250,000 people face starvation in the emerald forests of northern Liberia. Most are trapped between warring factions who contend that relief convoys will breach their security by crossing their lines.

A peace plan was signed July 25 by the armies that have looted, raped and massacred their way through this West African state settled by American slaves. But the worst victims of the war, the masses driven deep into the jungle by the bloodshed, remain difficult to reach.

`THE BODY EATS ITSELF'

Tall and pretty with a clear, direct gaze, Massa faces an uphill battle to survive. She weighs less than 60 percent of her normal body weight and doctors say she likely has suffered serious internal damage.

Many of the hungry suffer from kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency that differs from marasmic malnutrition, the starvation that afflicted Somalia, where no food was available to many.

"With marasmic children, if you care for the child there is a high recovery rate," said Dr. Jean-Bernard Bouvier of Doctors Without Borders of Holland.

"With kwash, even if you care for them they can die. The body has no protein and uses its own protein. The body eats itself."

Massa lives in upper Lofa County, in the extreme northwestern corner of Liberia. The forest villages teem with hungry people.

"They're foraging for whatever they can find," said Denise Barrett, an aid worker for Lutheran World Services.

Barrett's group is sporadically hauling high-protein food up the muddy mountain passes and paying an idled timber company to keep repairing the wood plank bridges washed out almost daily as the rainy season approaches.

TRAPPED BY REBELS

The worst place here is Vahun, a village of 5,000 that ballooned to nearly 38,000 when starving refugees came pouring out of the rain forest as the rebel army of Charles Taylor was driven out a month ago.

"Taylor's men would say `Join me,' if they didn't like what you say or do," said Joe N'Gombu, 35. "That meant you would be tortured or killed. They took our food, our clothes, our women."

Village chief Adama Yawah said troops executed his grandmother, Satie Tomba, by shooting her in the head and stomach. Her crime was telling the lover of a rebel commander to stop stealing from her pepper garden, Yawah said.

Taylor started the civil war in December 1989, when he led an invasion from the Ivory Coast to topple the dictatorship of President Samuel Doe. Doe was later tied to a chair and slowly mutilated by a splinter rebel group that videotaped his torturous death.

In neighboring Sierra Leone, a rebel faction allied with Taylor launched its own rebellion, sending thousands of refugees fleeing into the even worse slaughter of Liberia, where at least 150,000 people have died since early 1990.

A Nigerian-led West African coalition force deployed in 1991 to put down Taylor's revolt has slowly driven Taylor north.

500 CHILDREN DYING WEEKLY

Though Vahun is in bad shape, there are areas that are much worse, almost all controlled by Taylor.

The West African army has prohibited relief groups from crossing into Taylor territory from neighboring countries, while Taylor has refused to let convoys enter through territory controlled by his enemies.

In the forest north of Kakata, an estimated 500 children are dying weekly out of a total population of 110,000 people, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Twenty percent of all children are suffering from kwashiorkor and 7,000 are expected to die in the next three weeks.

RAINS GETTING STRONGER

Some pockets of people are unreachable because Taylor has heavily mined the roads at the front, aid workers say.

Four weeks of fitful food deliveries have reduced the daily death rate in Vahun from 15 to 20 to about 5 to 8 people, mostly children, Barrett said.

But the rains are getting stronger, the steep roads muddier. Lofa will soon be unreachable.

"Lofa has always been an island cut off by the rainy season," said Augustine Mahiga, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official in Monrovia.

`MY LEGS FEEL LIKE LEAD WEIGHTS'

Massa Kanneh is among 330 critically malnourished children being fed a high-protein porridge of corn, soya and beans at a feeding center run by the humanitarian medical group Doctors Without Borders of Belgium.

Four-year-old Mohammed Vandi walks on grotesquely bloated feet and wears a wrist tag that says his weight is below 60 percent.

"My husband was separated by the war and there is nobody to find food for us," said his mother, Musu. "We ate bush yams for months."

Amara Braima's parents starved in the jungle while the family trekked from Sierra Leone. The 6-year-old lived on potato and cassava leaves until making it to Vahun with his aunt. His bare feet look like combat boots.

"My legs feel like lead weights," he said.

Relief convoys are struggling against the worsening rains to bring upper Lofa back before it is sealed off again.

"The food is not coming fast enough," Barrett said.

--------------------- STARVATION IN LIBERIA ---------------------

An estimated 250,000 people in the rain forests of Liberia are threatened by starvation and disease, relief groups say.

Where: Isolated sections of the rain forest, mostly in areas controlled by rebel leader Charles Taylor.

Who is affected: Mostly children. An estimated 500 children are dying weekly in one area north of Kakata where 110,000 people now live. More than 7,000 children are expected to die in the next three weeks.

Type of malnutrition: An estimated 20 percent of the children are suffering from kwashiorkor, an extreme protein deficiency that forces the body to cannibalize itself, leading to bloated feet, hands, face and bellies. Others are suffering from marasmus, a general lack of food that causes a skeletal appearance.

Relief problems: Most of the affected people are in isolated areas. Some roads have been mined. The warring factions also are preventing aid groups from reaching many starving people because of disputes over which routes should be used across the front lines.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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