Sierra Leone: A Tale of Three Amputees

14 May 2002

Freetown, Sierra Leone — Lamin is ready to forgive, but not forget. Ishmael will never forget and is not prepared to forgive. Finna appears to have other things on her mind on election day in Sierra Leone.

All three lined up on Tuesday in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, to cast their votes in the historic presidential and parliamentary polls.

Lamin Jusu Jarka, 43, Ishmael Daramy, 42, and Finna Kamara, 33, all have one thing in common. They were the victims of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war. They all had their hands chopped off in 1999. They are all residents of the Aberdeen Road Amputee Camp in Freetown.

Unlike other amputees, none of the three was given the choice of what version of 'cut arm' or 'cut hand' they wanted - long sleeves or short sleeves.

They were punished by the rebels for different reasons. Lamin had his two arms hacked off, he says, because he refused to surrender his daughter to the rebels and encouraged her to escape through a back window. They wanted to teach him a lesson, attacking him and leaving him for dead. Lamin told he could not willingly have handed over his daughter to be raped and possibly killed, during an orgy of rebel atrocities when they attacked Freetown in 1999.

An unforgiving Ishmael says he was maimed in the same 1999 rebel raid on the capital. The rebels told him they were chopping off his two hands to prevent him from ever again using them to vote for "democracy for that man Kabbah" (the leader of the governing Sierra Leone People's Party who is standing for re-election and a second term).

Finna lost her left hand, and almost her life, because she did not have money to give to the rebels to stop them. She says she went to her farm to plant groundnuts and on her return found the rebels, firing off loud shots and making demands.

For good measure they stole her cassette-radio and cut off the hand of her daughter, Damba Koroma, then a mere six years old, "under the giant cotton tree" Finna recalls, in Kabala, in the north.

Machetes and knives were the rough weapons of choice used by the rebels - including child fighters - for their summary amputations.

Finna, Ishmael and Lamin are just three among hundreds of amputees in Sierra Leone who had their hands, fingers, arms, legs and, in some cases noses, severed from their bodies. They remain a visible, potent and poignant reminder of the barbaric nature of the conflict in Sierra Leone that raged for a decade and claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.

The amputees are also a symbol and permanent legacy of the horrors of a rebellion where the different factions transformed children into fighters and killers, raped old and young women and turned girls into sex slaves. Other civilians were forced to take up arms.

Special provision was made by the Sierra Leonean authorities for amputees and the blind to vote in the first democratic poll since the war formally ended in January.

At their UN-sponsored amputee camp in Freetown, Finna, Ishmael, Lamin, and the other with missing limbs, were allowed to vote ahead of a throng of other enthusiastic voters queuing in their hundreds to choose a new president and 112 parliamentarians.

The former rebels, transformed into the Revolutionary United Front political party, RUFP, are fielding a presidential candidate and potential MPs in the elections in Sierra Leone.

The outgoing leader, Kabbah, 70, is one of nine presidential hopefuls, including one woman, Zainab Hawa Bangura of the Movement for Progress (MoP party). Analysts say Kabbah stands a good chance of winning, if he can gain the required 55 percent in the first round.

If not, Kabbah could face stiff competition in a second round run-off, most likely from the former ruling All People's party (APC) candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma, especially if his rivals form a political alliance.

Kabbah's supporters hail the president who they say helped to restore peace in Sierra Leone, invited the United Nations' peacekeepers into their country and ended the war.

His critics have accused Kabbah's SLPP of intimidating would-be voters from opposition parties and preventing them from campaigning freely throughout the country.

Lamin, who is a chief organizer at the Aberdeen Road amputee camp, chose not disclose who he was voting for.

But Ishmael was quite open and forthright. "I have come to vote to choose my good leader, President Kabbah. Kabbah is my president," he said simply, with a laugh. He added that he had triumphed over the rebels because, although he had no hands to vote, he was still able to cast his ballot for democracy.

Ishmael, who comes from Kono District in eastern Sierra Leone, a region devastated by the rebellion, said: "I believe this is good for the people of Sierra Leone, because this is a peaceful election in Sierra Leone this year".

But he told indignantly that the rebels would never get his vote - nor the support of most Sierra Leoneans - because of the harm they had done to their country.

"They cut off my hands and told me that I couldn't vote for democracy anymore. They don't like democracy. They told me to go to Kabbah to give me new hands or to the international community to give me hands. I suffered for democracy, so I have to support democracy until the end of my life."

Ishmael is not very confident about the future of his country or the process of unifying the divided nation and bringing some understanding between former rebels and their victims.

"I cannot talk about reconciliation, because it is very difficult. The TRC [the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone] may have worked in South Africa, but when you look at the situation in Sierra Leone compared with South Africa, it is so different. In Sierra Leone we had amputations, in South Africa they did not," said Ishmael.

Ishmael said he knew the rebel, the "young boy" as he calls him, who cut off his hands, and was finding it difficult to forgive him. "It is not easy to reconcile with someone who amputated you. It is not easy to forgive. Everyday I have my pain. I am suffering. Who can educate my five children? Who can take care of my wife? Nothing can convince me to forget. Nothing. I can't forget. Everyday I have my pain. How can I forget? It's not easy to forget, it's not easy to forgive."

But Lamin, the camp organizer, talked positively about how the elections represented a new start for Sierra Leone. "It is going to be a new beginning of life because, compared to the previous ten years of war that has taken place in this country, people are looking forward to reinstating a new democratic government which will be able to address the issues of the people of this country."

He and the other amputees are appealing to Sierra Leone's new leaders to help them. "Right now we don't have any assistance," said Lamin.

Lamin painstakingly used his prosthetic arms, with two pincer-fingers, to remove his voting card from his pocket and present it to election officials in the polling station (Finna and Ishmael are so far without prostheses).

Lamin then lifted his foot onto the table for the nail of his big toe to be painted with indelible ink. Normally voters have their left thumb daubed with the ink.

In front of flashing camera lights, and scribbling reporters, Lamin carefully placed his toe on an ink pad and placed a 'toe print', rather than a thumb print, against the presidential candidate of his choice, after which he neatly folded the ballot paper with his pincers.

Mission accomplished, with a big smile and sweating profusely from the exertion, Lamin looked up proudly and triumphantly, telling journalists: "I used to vote with my hands, I did it today with my toe." He said he was 'happy' at having voted and gave a victorious 'thumbs up' with his false arms.

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