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December 20, 2006 3:00 AM

One year into presidency, Liberian leader faces enormous challenges

One hot night in 1985, soldiers loyal to Liberias authoritarian president, Samuel Doe, hauled a group of political opponents into a military prison. When the male prisoners were taken outside to be executed, one woman remained alone in a cell. A soldier approached, and the female prisoner, an outspoken opposition parliamentary candidate named Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, feared that she was about to be raped. Just then, another soldier appeared and barked an order: As you were! The man backed off and vanished. Johnson-Sirleafs protector was from her fathers tribe, the Gola, and he told her in their common dialect, Im going to sit outside your cell gate for the rest of the night. Today I dont know him, Johnson-Sirleaf said recently, recounting the story. He may have died in the war. Hes never made himself known to me. If the soldier is still alive, he certainly knows the woman he saved that night. Shes now the president of Liberia, the first woman ever elected to lead an African nation. In the year since Johnson-Sirleafs historic inauguration, the 68-year-old, U.S.-educated economist has raised hopes in her long-suffering homeland on the West African coast. Liberia is trying to rebound from a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 people nearly one-twelfth of the population and sparked violence across the region for much of the 1990s.

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