Monrovia — Liberians braved long hours in the scorching sun and the pouring rain on Tuesday to have their say in elections they hope will cement peace and reduce poverty in this West African nation, ravaged for years by civil war.
"Liberia is at a crossroads and it means a great deal to be here to determine the future, not only for myself but for my children," said 38-year-old Emmanuel Wisseh, who was up in the middle of the night to stake out his place in the queue, hours before the polls opened.
In the capital Monrovia, shop doors were shuttered, street vendors were nowhere to be seen, and the pot-holed roads were almost traffic-free as a nation headed to the ballot box to pick a new president, 30 senators and 64 representatives for the lower house of parliament.
The front-runners in the 22-strong presidential field are millionaire George Weah, the first and only African to be voted the world's best footballer, and Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
"This is the day people are exercising their democratic right to vote and for the first time they are doing it without fear," 39-year-old Weah told reporters just before casting his ballot in the suburbs of Monrovia.
Further north in Tubmanburg, his rival Sirleaf also praised the enthusiastic voter turnout.
"I'm happy for the Liberian people. They are tired of destruction. They are standing up for themselves today," said the 66-year-old grandmother, who would be Africa's first elected female president if she won.
International election observers said they were impressed by the population's visible commitment to democracy.
"If people take part in such a massive way ... they will put enormous pressure on whoever is elected to really do something for the people and not play their own political games again," Max van den Berg, head of the European Union's observer mission, told reporters.
Pledges to the people
The two favourites have both promised to restore water and electricity and improve education and healthcare in Liberia, as well as stamp out corruption.
But Weah critics doubt he can transfer his skills from the soccer stadium to the presidential palace, and say a wiser, more experienced head is needed.
His supporters counter that educated politicians, like Sirleaf, have done nothing to improve the lot of the ordinary Liberian.
Tuesday's elections are the first since Liberia's bloody civil conflict drew to a close in August 2003. An estimated quarter of a million people were killed during the fighting, which forced hundreds of thousands more from their homes.
Mo Wilson fled his home in Bomi County after rebel forces attacked and he lost friends to rogue grenades and stray bullets.
For the past five years he has been living in a camp for the displaced some 20 km outside Monrovia. Today he queued for almost eight hours, braving torrential rain with a flimsy umbrella, to play his part in the landmark polls.
"Elections are so important for us and I hope that when the new president takes office I will be back home and not here," Wilson said, as some of the 15,000 UN peacekeepers in the country looked on.
Holding polls in a place where war has reduced much of the infrastructure to rubble has thrown up some unusual challenges.
A UN helicopter was dispatched to northern Lofa County on Tuesday to rescue stranded polling staff who had not been able to reach their designated station because of a swollen river.
Tents and lanterns
In the heavily-forested interior where no suitable building is left standing, tents house the ballot boxes.
Among Monrovia's polling stations is a church, where the bodies of 600 people massacred during the civil war lie in two mass graves out front.
But while the reminders of war still linger in this impoverished yet resource-rich nation, residents are pleased that the days of looking over one's shoulder are gone.
"There's been no harassment, no intimidation. People have been free to come to vote," said 33-year-old Sarah Sawah voting in Buchanan, some 120 km east of the capital, where voters went home to get chairs so they could sit while they queued.
Election officials said they were concerned about how slowly lines around the country were moving, with polls due to close at 6:00 pm.
But they vowed that every Liberian that wanted to vote would be able to do so.
"Anyone who is in the queue when 6 o'clock comes will be allowed to cast their vote even if it takes until midnight," Frances Johnson-Morris, head of the National Elections Commission, told reporters.
The official results do not have to be published until 26 October, but some partial results are expected on Wednesday, with counting beginning whenever the polls close.
And because Liberia has been without mains electricity for more than a decade, some 8,000 battery-powered lanterns have been sent out across the country so that officials can actually see to count.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]