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Liberia's women warriors often feared

TUBMANBURG, Liberia - Her uniform is a red beret, spaghetti-strap halter top and black jeans. Her weapons are Kalashnikovs and mortars. Black Diamond, 22, is a Liberian rebel commander - known by her nom de guerre and feared by friends and foes alike in a war-shattered nation where women and girls are more likely to be victims than avengers. Whether blasting mortars at enemy troops or slapping down armed looters, she and her all-female Womens' Artillery Commandos fight for revenge, they say, against wrongs by Liberia's brutal government forces. They don't have to fight for respect; they've already got it.

"Fire you! Fire you!" Black Diamond snarled one day this month at armed men lugging sacks of grain in a looting spree she and her fighters, many in earrings and lipstick, had been ordered to stop. She blasted her rifle inches over the head of a muscular looter who was slow to drop his weapon, then struck him in the chest with a lightning-fast fist and screamed in his face. The man - nearly twice her size - fell backward, astonished and cowering.

"Women can fight the same as men. Some women more than men," Black Diamond said later at the rebel stronghold of Tubmanburg, 40 miles from Monrovia. "They are trained like we are. They are the same," confirmed Ranger One, commander of an all-male unit. Asked about the women's much-touted ferocity, Ranger One replied that he would never marry a female fighter "because it's risky to my life."

Liberia has a history of women in arms in its 14 years of conflict under Charles Taylor. In the 1989-96 civil war, which Taylor launched, his own faction had female artillery units renowned for their bravery and accuracy. Some senior female commanders took posts in Liberia's armed forces when Taylor won the presidency in 1997. When Liberia's main rebel movement took up arms four years ago, Black Diamond and many other women were among the first to join.

Their mission was to unseat Taylor, whose unsalaried, undisciplined fighters made raping and looting, a perk of service in Liberia's armed forces. "Operation Pay Yourself," the soldiers called it. Black Diamond's mother was killed in the civil war, though she refuses to say how or when. Other relatives fled their homes in the capital, Monrovia, for neighboring Guinea.

"Yes," Black Diamond said when asked if she had suffered at the hands of Taylor's vicious troops. "No," she said, looking down, when asked to elaborate. "If I explain all that, I will cry," she growled, her lower lip trembling slightly. "No more raping," Black Diamond added, in a mumble. "If I talk about it, I will shed tears," nodded comrade Road Crossing, 27, the female rebels' second-in-command. She says she got her name from fellow fighters "because of my hardness."

Liberian Health Minister Peter Coleman, a surgeon and therapist, has encountered a number of female fighters over the years of near constant warfare. Many told him they were motivated by rage after they or their relatives were sexually assaulted. Others took up arms after being captured to perform domestic and sexual services for male fighters. "When you think of cooks and sex slaves, it is preferable for many to fight, even if you could be killed," the health minister said.

Others join because "you see other girls in action, they look good and you want to just join them." Rebel factions prize their female officers because they are "more disciplined than the men. They don't get drunk and they take their mission very seriously," Coleman said. "I saw a woman shoot another officer because he raped a woman," he said. "She could not tolerate it. Everyone was afraid of her."

Government militias - which also have female fighters - say women are among their most feared opponents. "They have powers that men don't have. They will not stop when others stop," said a government officer, who identified himself only as Powell. Male rebel commanders treat the women as equals. Although physically weaker than the men, "I will show you I don't want you to have me the way you want to have me," Black Diamond said of unwanted advances by male counterparts.

When rebels marched from the jungle to the capital in June, Black Diamond and her commandoes marched, too. When Taylor fell, forced out by the rebels and international pressure, Black Diamond and her unit "celebrated with many mortars" - the shells they had lobbed during sieges of government-held neighborhoods. After West African peacekeepers and U.S. Marines deployed to secure Monrovia's port, Black Diamond and her unit withdrew to their headquarters in a ramshackle cement-block, tin-roof house in Tubmanburg.

There, the women await orders, ready to relaunch war "if our chairman orders it," Black Diamond said. "I am not tired. Only Charles Taylor is tired." She hopes peace will hold so she and her commandoes can return to civilian life - "something even better" than what they left behind. "If you go to school, you go to school. If you do business, you do business," Black Diamond said, but quickly shrugged off talk of her postwar dreams. "The time has not come to say."

Source: Associated Press, August 23 2003
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