LESS THAN ONE year ago, The Washington Post cautiously hailed a Liberian peace accord as a hopeful example of West African cooperation for peace. Today, the only law that remains in Liberia is the law of the jungle. How could such a change have happened so fast?

For all the violence we Americans lament in our own society, we enjoy relative peace. We can count on long-standing institutions to settle differences of opinion; we may grumble, but we accept the decisions of the deliberative bodies that anchor our society. Furthermore, we can participate in public life. From Church groups to the PTA, from the Girl Scouts to neighborhood associations, we have a voice in shaping our communities.

In Liberia (and throughout much of Africa) this is not the case. Even before the recent war, the foundations of peaceful civil society were never allowed to take hold. Descendants of U.S. slaves founded the country in 1823, quickly set themselves up as overlords. They treated the indigenous population much as their own grandparents had been treated by their white owners in the United States. It took over 150 years for a representative of those indigenous people, Samuel Doe, to seize power from the Americo-Liberians. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a more effective representative of his own interests than a leader of his people. Charles Taylor overthrew Doe in 1989, opening up the struggle for power between a half dozen factions.

But Taylor, the chief architect of Liberia's current anarchy, has failed to consolidate control over the country. His most powerful rival, Roosevelt Johnson, has resisted Taylor's efforts to take him prisoner. Today, the two brood over the wreckage of the country they would rule.

Liberia lacks the civil society that might foster the peaceful resolution of conflict. The proponents of peace have been marginalized by war. The leaders of four main factions foment violence and reward their followers with the spoils. Displaced people face starvation as their farms have been destroyed. Relief agencies like Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Save the Children, Lutheran World Service and Medicins Sans Frontieres, their offices and goods looted by bandits and militias, have scaled back their efforts until public authorities can guarantee them freedom of movement and neutral status.

Until this round of fighting, CRS carried out its relief and development program for six years, providing food and facilitating agricultural recovery.

The recent fighting has been exceptionally devastating; it is the first time since 1989 that Monrovia has been the site of heavy combat (ironically, as a result of the peace accords in Abuja, factional soldiers of all stripes gained entry to the city in Aug. 1995); and it is the first time humanitarian workers have been targeted with impunity by soldiers serving the faction leaders.

While humanitarian agencies have decided not to reestablish their offices until certain humanitarian principles are in place, they have pledged to provide targeted, life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable Liberians. Using food supplies protected by the soldiers of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG), thousands of displaced Liberians are fed each month. In addition, hundreds of farming families have received seeds from CRS so that they can replant fields and feed their communities later in the year. As the crisis goes on, humanitarian agencies have continued to assess the needs of newly-displaced people, and are prepared to lend a hand.

It is difficult to determine the right prescription for long-term peace in Liberia. Samuel Koffi Woods, director the country's Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, maintains that citizens must establish a lasting accord: “Liberians must provide an alternative to violence. The teeming minority who want war” have held sway over those whom Woods calls “the real Liberians.” Real Liberians, he contends, don't care who emerges victorious from this power struggle, they just want peace.

Tom Garofalo is a communications associate for Catholic Relief Services.