Sunlight floods into the abandoned movie theater through the collapsed ceiling, throwing light onto dust-caked seats, walls nicked by bullets - and four barbers trying to get by.

Sprawling on broken desk chairs and leaning against the wall, a line of men wait their turn in the barber chairs set in a corner near where the screen used to be.In Liberia's capital, which saw gruesome combat less than two years ago, where factional violence raged off and on for seven years, business looks pretty good at the S & E Barbing Saloon.

But don't tell that to the barbers.

Sure, Monrovia is being cleaned up and people and businesses are returning. And the barbers now get paid in cash instead of trading haircuts for a couple oily sardines, as some did during the war. But getting by is still a challenge.

"People can't pay very much," said Robert Smith, who charges 45 Liberian dollars - about $1 - for a haircut.

But most people can only afford about half that, leaving him a daily income that sometimes doesn't break $5. On that, he supports six people in a city where a tiny apartment starts at $75-$100 a month.

It's more than many people earn in West Africa, where the average family in many countries earns below $500 a year. But Smith is part of Monrovia's working class; he's supposed to be doing pretty well.

"People just can't pay for the services we give them," he said.

Still, things aren't as bad as when Smith arrived in 1996, around the time of Monrovia's last major outbreak of fighting. He had come from Gbarnga, the wartime stronghold of warlord Charles Taylor, now Liberia's elected president, thinking the capital would be safer.

Things have been improving in Monrovia since the war died down, and particularly since Taylor's election six months ago. There's some trust, finally, that fighting won't start again.

The streets of the seaside capital, once little more than stretches of looted, bombed buildings, have seen dozens of businesses open. Bullet holes are being patched. People are moving back.

"There's a little improvement going on," Smith said grudgingly.

But unemployment remains high. Generators provide the city's only electricity. It's difficult to walk a block without passing some sort of war wreckage.

The contrasts are jarring, like the pair of late-model BMWs recently parked on the edge of town near a group of wrecked armored cars sprouting weeds.

The government is negotiating for international reconstruction loans, but it will take years and billions of dollars. Until then, crumbling movie theaters are about as good as it gets for the barbers.

Monrovia is a long way from what it was when a tiny clique of Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who founded Liberia, ran the country.

The Americo-Liberians, whose ill-treatment of the country's indigenous peoples led to generations of bitterness, lived lives of genteel turn-of-the-century Americana. Men often dressed in top hats and tails and met at the Masonic temple to keep up business and political connections.