Mohome Sankoh, 19, whose leg was hacked off during Sierra Leone’s civil war by a female soldier wielding a machete, clutches a pair of crutches by the curb of one of Freetown’s unpaved back streets. He begs – for food, money, anything – in front of a ramshackle block of kiosks. The stench of urine permeates the area, wrestling the nostrils in this most destitute of city blocks in one of Africa’s poorest cities.
“What a me for do?’ he says in his native Kreo, amid the furious honking of sweaty drivers whose beat up Mercedes and BMWs cram into a street built in pre-automotive era. Roughly translated, it means he can’t change his lot.
More than five years after the war’s end, one still doesn’t have to look far to find living testaments to the conflict’s unusual barbarity, where armed rebels hacked off the limbs of civilians as a warning to any would-be opposition. In a story that is so very African, the amputees have become an afterthought as the international community has redirected its gaze on the Dark Continent’s latest hot spots. But still they linger on, many struggling for their daily survival.
Sauda Bangua said she makes
a living begging on the roadside.
Wendy Batson, spokeswoman for Handicapped International, a non-government organization, said that surviving in a country like Sierra Leone, where half the country lives by physically intensive subsistence agriculture, is taxing enough on most Sierra Leoneans, but especially for amputees.
“Almost half of the country lives by subsistence agriculture,” said Batson,”which is hard to do if you are an amputee.”
Added Batson: “There are almost no other jobs in the rural areas of the country. For anything else, you would need an education and few rural people got one during the long years of civil war.”
In a conflict that saw 75,000 people killed and two million displaced, 20,000 people were mutilated, according to Handicapped International. Five thousand are upper limb amputees. There are no further statistics on the war disabled available, an indication of how little attention the issue is given, said HI.
Daily bread: A concerned driver hands
some pocket money to a friend of an amputee
who is begging on the streets of Freetown.
With 68 percent of the population living under the poverty line, according to the CIA Factbook, and an average life expectancy of 41 years ; the country is a textbook case of social Darwinsim.
There are only three Sierra Leonean physiotherapists and one psychiatrist for five million inhabitants, said HI, and most help comes from NGOs, with state and local networks still unable to fully take over aid projects. Absent are any civil service employment quotas or incentives for businesses to hire the disabled.
Thaime Kamare, a farmer from “upcountry,” which is local speak for the rural provinces, begs daily among the kiosks and asphyxiating car exhaust, trying to get enough to pay school fees for his children, he said. His left arm is a stump wrapped in white bandages. “No help,” he said of what he sees as government ambivalence to his condition.
Visual reminders of a brutal civil war
On the outskirts of Freetown, the amputees’ settlement at Waterloo is accessible by a dirt road off of the main route. Economic activity is sparse, save one tent where a few boys in their early teens serve palm wine from dirty, plastic jugs for a few cents.
Amineta Manasari is an old woman who has been living there since the end of the war, scratching out a living by making and selling soap. She comes home every day to a cramped two-room shack provided by an NGO and built on government land. She, at least, is lucky enough to have that. Her son also goes out and begs for her. “I survive by the grace of God,” she said.
Rather than having her arm cut off – that would have been more merciful, Manasari said – rebels bludgeoned it with heavy sticks and broke all the bones until it went limp. Three days later it became infected and a local doctor had to amputate, she said.
With a roof over her head, she can be counted as comparatively lucky.
Interrupted education: Sauda Bangua
whose arm was amputated by rebels
in Freetown, and her daughter.
Bangua has had to take her children
out of school occasionally because
she couldn’t afford the school fees.
Manasari’s neighbor, Sauda Bangua, had her hand cut off by rebels in Freetown. “I de go beg,” or I go and beg, she said of how she supports her eight children. There is no government assistance program that she knows of.
She has a bracelet-like scar snaking around her right wrist, where rebels tried to hack off her hand with anything they could – branches, small knives, anything within reach, but couldn’t get it to come off, she said. The other one came off later with just a couple of chops with a machete.
Many have been separated from their families and communities during the war and rarely do they have their own income, according to HI.
Amputees also have difficulty accessing health care, said HI, and children attend schools that are unequipped to meet their needs, with special schools concentrated in Freetown, far from most of the country’s children. The disabled are also linked to witchcraft and evil spirits in some communities.
While some have been reintegrated into their villages, others have gravitated to the cities as beggars, which may be easier for some handicapped people than physically intensive farm work. Others are suspected of having been bewitched, and feel uncomfortable living amid villagers’ whispers and stares.
With the stump as a perpetual reminder, forgetting is nearly impossible for most amputees, said HI. Victims were forced to participate in their own mutilation: They were asked if they wanted a “short sleeve” – arm cut off at the elbow – or a “long sleeve” – just the hand cut off – forcing them to participate in their own torture.
Surviving: Amineta Manasari
has been living in a settlement for amputees
in Waterloo, on the outskirts of Freetown,
since the end of the war.
Victor Gegebe, the project officer in HI’s psychological unit, said while it is true there are many in the city begging, others have been resettled into the provinces with their extended family.
But some don’t want to go home. “For some of them, these places serve as a reminder of their amputation,” Gegebe said.
A country with too many problems
There are overwhelming priorities in a country ranked 176 out of 177 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living of nations. Sierra Leone has put the management of rehabilitation services for disabled persons mainly in the hands of NGOs, as the government has little budget available, according to HI.
War crimes trials started in March 2007, in which some defendants have been charged in connection with crimes against humanity, enslavement and a number of other alleged offenses. But Bangua said she is uninterested in the fate of her victimizers, and had little knowledge of the trials. More pressing for her is whether she and her children can slog through another day.
Sidekie Brima, minister of government and community, said the amputees were reintegrated following the war’s end and many have been placed back into the rural areas. Ironically, said he and others, some may fair better from handouts in the capital than from farming in the provinces. “For them the meaning of a better life is being able to beg,” he said.
The amputees are simply one of many problems in a country devastated by war and dealing with ongoing poverty and a host of other issues, Sidekie added.
Indeed, Sierra Leone has little money to spend on health, few trained staff and little infrastructure, said Batson.
That said, the government has been working on a legal framework for disabled persons, reflected in the 2005 3-year Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper
“As (with) many countries, the laws exist, but they are not implemented,” said Batson. “The economic situation of the country is obviously the best explanation for that.”