for National Geographic News
Shells falling outside the hospital gates. Volunteers shuttling war wounded in wheelbarrows into the emergency ward. Surgeons dodging stray bullets inside the operating room.
Being an aid worker in war-shattered Liberia may be the toughest job in the world.
As fighting intensified in the middle of July, scores of aid workers were evacuated from the small West African nation. Now, with a lull in the fightingand President Charles Taylor's expected exile from Liberiamany of the aid workers are coming back.
They're finding a country in complete ruins. The needs are overwhelming. One million Liberians have been displaced. Malnutrition is soaring. Perhaps worst of all, a cholera epidemic is lurking around the corner.
With fighting bound to reignite at any time, delivering the help that Liberians so desperately require will be almost impossible.
"The real difficulty is the insecurity caused by the fightingrocket fighting, stray bulletsand by the behavior of some of the fighters, who are totally out of control," said Fredèric Bardou, head of the Liberia mission for the French aid agency Action Against Hunger. "Some of them can loot our car if we cross them. We must always evaluate the importance of danger."
The fighting, which has pitted government militias loyal to President Charles Taylor against a murky rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is only the latest installment in a civil war that started in 1989 and has claimed at least 80,000 lives.
In the last week, the presence of a slowly building West African peacekeeping forceand Taylor's promise to resignhave brought a weak truce to Monrovia, the capital, while fighting continues in the countryside.
Only four aid agenciesDoctors Without Borders (or MSF as it's known by its French acronym), Action Against Hunger, the Irish group Merlin, and the International Red Crosshave stayed in Liberia throughout the fighting.
When United Nations personnel returned to Monrovia this weekend for the first time since evacuating in late July, they found UN warehouses, which once held 10,000 tons of wheat, corn meal and other goods, completely looted.
According to a survey carried out by Action Against Hunger, almost 50 percent of children living in camps in Monrovia suffer from acute malnutrition.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES