Thursday, June 11, 2009
Well, I'm starting my community flashback with my trip to an amputee camp yesterday because it is still very fresh. Sierra Leone, unfortunately, has many amputees as the rebel soldiers were known for amputating arms and legs regularly throughout the country. Here is my blog entry, and a few pictures.
After lunch we decided to go to the amputee camp, as I that was one of the few places we had yet to visit in Makeni. The camp was back behind Wusum (one of two mountains in Makeni) and the compound caretaker had to ride with us to show us the way. When we arrived, the clearing where the houses were built was beautiful and the houses themselves were new and crisp and clean. They were neatly ordered and well kept. There must have been about fifty of them in rows of two or three deep. We drove until we found some people and asked for their headman. It is always the practice to see the leader first when entering a community. This way you have formal welcome and informal, as people will know if you have talked to the head man first and will welcome you more if they welcome you.
We were directed back to the entrance of the camp to the second house in the row. We pulled up and asked the people on the porch if the head man was home. After a bit of time he came out and much to my hostess’s surprise he was an old friend from before the war that she had lost track of and had no idea he had been amputated. You could tell she was quite moved and taken aback. He had lost his right leg above the knee and was using the type of crutches that link around your upper arm and have hand holds. He was very friendly and invited us into his home to tell us the story of the how the camp came to be. They were speaking in Krio, so I did not get all the specifics, but did get the general idea.
There was no official amputee organization to petition for the rights of the amputee in Sierra Leone. The headman saw that people were caring for the blind, the deaf, and the otherwise disabled, but no help came to the amputees. So, he formed an organization, which he registered with the government, and went on the radio to announce that he was registering amputees in the Makeni area, and many came to meet him and sign up (my guess is that this happened with similar organizations or maybe his still organization around the country, which is why there are amputee camps in a lot of the districts). He then met with the Norwegian government and talked to them about their involvement (as they were the group most affective in working with and for refugees). They agreed to build some houses if the groups could get some land. So, he worked very hard and found the land and convinced its owner to donate it. It is a bit far out from Makeni, which he didn’t like, but close enough that people could get into town if need be. At some point in time 20 houses were built and there was a promise of 20 more and then 30 more and recently the president came to see the houses, meet the group and the Norwegian woman who helped to sponsor the houses (after his description, I believe it is the same woman I met in in an amputee home that first day in Lungi). The headman is very proud of what he has accomplished (as well he should be), but fears that they still do not have a school or health facilities. I hope that in time those will come to the group.
He agrees to a snap, or the Sierra Leonean word for photograph, and also gives me permission to take any photographs anywhere in the village. We take some pictures of the houses, the magnificent view of Wusum and of the new well they are digging- by chance there are several amputees by the well and you can see them in the photograph. The village goes up the hill so we climbed the hill to get a good photo of the village with Wusum in the background.
I got out of the car to take the snap, and a little girl saw the camera, and like all little girls, she wanted a snap(the kids here go nuts over having their pictures taken and them looking at themselves through the viewfinder- it could occupy them for hours). How she was different than other little girls though, was that her left leg had been amputated and she was using a walker. She was so young that my guess was that she was just a baby when someone chopped off her leg. The thought of it makes me cringe and sick to my stomach at the same time. She was just a baby and someone cut off her leg. I was reminded of when a contact told me that the rebels used to ask people as they held a machete over their arms, whether they wanted a long sleeve or a short sleeve, and that would determine if they chopped off your arm at your wrist of your elbow. The atrocity of the amputation is shocking, especially when you see a whole camp of amputees. I took the picture of the little girl and some of the fully-limbed boys and girls nearby (in the camp, each amputee is entitled to one home where they can live with their family so there are many non-amputees in the amputee camp as well).
After their snaps (which I was glad to have because the horror of the act really sets in with such a sweet little girl) we headed back down the hill and took a photo with three men in wheelchairs who had lost all or most of both of their legs. They were the ones that had first told us where the headman lived, so they were happy to have their pictures taken. We also drove by a boy about ten with only one leg; he was likely a toddler when the rebels amputated him. I have heard so many war stories that I cannot even begin to imagine living through, but seeing these amputees really made me struggle to fight back tears, in fact writing about them brings tears to my eyes again. I can’t imagine how a human being could cut off a limb of another human being. I am so fortunate to be so sheltered that even though I have met the people, heard the stories, and even seen some photos, I cannot grasp the concept.
As we leave the camp (and drive on the road people used to run from the rebels) I think about the how the former rebels are living peacefully among the civilians here Makeni. I have probably met ex-combatants and have no idea. While I am sure the people of Makeni can know who was on what side of the conflict, they are able to get along with everyone for the good of the country. I am really is awe of this idea. I think even though I have heard it many times, leaving the camp is the first time that it sets in. Your current next door neighbor could have raped your daughter, or killed your son, or looted your home, and now you are expected to be fine. Many people have said they can forgive, but cannot forget. In honesty, I am wowed by the humble nature of all the people of Sierra Leone and their willingness to move on. I am confronted with anger about the conflict for the first time. I have done a good job of maintaining a researcher’s eye and learning about the conflict and the postconflict situation without much emotion, but seeing those amputees brings it home for me. I have felt angry when I have met the women that have told me stories of being raped, and I am outraged by the horrific details by which they recall their torture, but this was the first time I allowed myself to think about it and couldn’t help but wonder as we saw carpenters and drivers (largely the skills taught by the UN during the DDR program-Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) if they were rebels, and if one of them had chopped of that little girl’s leg. I know that I have to take some advice from the Sierra Leone playbook and forgive but never forget. I can never forget the huge smile on that little girls face when I took her snap, despite having to use the walker that she has now or some other sort of crutch for the rest of her life. She wanted a snap; for a minute, she was a regular little girl.