Clouds of dark smoke billowed over the city Sunday as 2,500 Liberian refugees stood on the deck of a freighter, sadly singing a patriotic hymn and waving farewell as the ship inched away from the burning capital.
They were the lucky ones.
Back on the streets, Monrovia was consumed by violence. Young fighters set dozens of homes and buildings on fire Sunday. Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into Monrovia’s besieged military barracks, the flash point of a month of bloodshed that has ruined the city and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of residents.
At the port, hundreds of Liberians desperately tried to climb up the sides of the Nigerian freighter Bulk Challenge as it chugged out to sea. Fighting erupted among those who had paid $75 for the five-day trip to Ghana but were left behind even after their luggage was packed on the ship.
“It was unbelievable - an exodus. It was pathetic,” said Peter Sebok, the Dutch owner of West Coast Fisheries, whose offices are at the port.
The Liberians who made it aboard sailed away singing “Lone Star Forever,” a national hymn of Africa’s first independent republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847.
Not far from the port, the two main bridges into the city that run parallel across the Mesurado River were being held by rival enemy camps, making it difficult for anyone to move in and out of downtown.
Rebel leader Charles Taylor had vowed that the battle for the Barclay military barracks held by his enemies would be won by the weekend. But Ulimo-J supporters of his archrival Roosevelt Johnson fought fiercely as Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia resumed shelling the barracks.
The clashes shattered hopes that Johnson’s evacuation from the country Friday - carried out by American troops - would spur moves toward ending the violence.
Instead, the fighting became even more brutal.
Hundreds of the 10,000 Liberians who have sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy residential compound stood watching in horror Sunday as five of Taylor’s fighters were executed down the hill below.
Tens of thousands of Liberians fled the city over the weekend, heading for rural areas already plagued by disease and serious shortages of food and medicine.
Taylor, a member of the ruling, six-man Council of State, has refused to join Johnson in Accra, Ghana, for talks scheduled to begin Wednesday on ending Liberia’s six-year civil war.