Rebels who hacked off the hands of civilians have scholarships and tool kits to help rebuild their lives after the war ended. But their victims say they have been cast aside and left to beg on street corners by a society eager to forget the savagery.
Lamin Jusu Jarka, who had both his hands chopped off, says he was full of hope when the 11-year conflict ended in 2002 and he voted with his big toe dipped in ink in presidential elections.
Now, he’s disillusioned — and angry about the way his country is treating victims, whom he represents as chairman of the Amputees and War-Wounded Association.
“They say we are lazy and we want to just hang around the streets begging. But who is going to employ us considering our state?” Jarka asked, stretching out his two maimed arms.
Even getting a bus driver to stop is a problem.
“They just drive by us because they say we are useless ‘cut men’ with no money to pay them,” said Maxwell Kornah, who was shot by rebels and had to have his leg amputated 10 years ago.
The treaty that ended the war tasked the government with setting up a fund to give pensions to adult amputees, but that has never happened, Jarka said.
A sign of the disinterest is that no one can say how many amputees there are in the West African country.
Estimates from the government and non-governmental organizations put the figure between 1,500 and 3,500. Jarka said it’s nearer 6,000.
Not nearly enough homes
He said the Norwegian Refugee Council has built 330 homes around the country for amputees — barely enough to house one in 20.
Social worker Edward Cowan of the disability section of the Ministry of Social Welfare defended the government effort.
“We tried to create empowerment schemes for them. ... We had to force some of them to go into these (new) skills. Some did, while others preferred to go begging outdoors,” he said.
But Jarka, 48, who was a bank security guard before the war, belittled government efforts to rehabilitate amputees by teaching skills such as tailoring, soap-making, weaving and arts and crafts. They do not offer a living wage and help only a fraction of victims, he said.
Under the agreement that ended the war, and resolutions from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the government promised amputees free education, medical care and transport on public buses.
But waiving school fees of $6 for one term does not include costs of up to $20 for uniforms, books and pencils — a huge expense in a country where unemployment is 80 percent and those with menial jobs earn $30 a month. The government provides free hospital beds but not expensive medication, amputees say.
Recalling the painful events of Jan. 6, 1999, when rebels rampaged into Freetown, Jarka described how one fighter came to his door and demanded that his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, follow him into the bush. She said she needed to get her shoes and Jarka followed her, hustling her to safety out of a bedroom window.
When he returned without her, the rebel, later identified by his nom de guerre, Commanding Officer Cut Hands, said he would kill him. Jarka was forced into a line of people by a mango tree.
“The rebels surrounded with guns held up, and they started chopping peoples’ hands, both hands, forcing their hands onto a root (of the mango tree) and using an ax,” Jarka said. “When they were amputated, (Commanding Officer Cut Hands) gave orders ‘Finish him,’ and the rebels would shoot the person, firing at him on the spot.”
When his turn came, Jarka said he pleaded, “But I am your brother,” to no avail. Both his hands were chopped off and he ran screaming in pain toward his house. The rebels let him go, he said, telling the commander, “He’ll die anyway.”
Jarka suffered for five days until West African peacekeepers drove back the rebels and an army surgeon amputated his rotting flesh, just below the elbows.
Cut Hands and other notorious rebel commanders are all believed to be dead, Jarka said.
Kornah, the man with the amputated leg, was in tears when he recounted his wartime ordeal. But he later appeared transformed, a brilliant smile gracing his handsome face as he removed his prosthesis, grabbed a crutch and went flying across white beach sand in a game of one-legged football with fellow amputees.
He said the exercise and being with people like himself, who do not taunt him, felt like “heaven,” even though his team lost.
The ex-rebel fighters are being sent to school and college, some have been trained as mechanics and given tool kits, others have been taught computer technology under a program designed to ensure they do not go back to war.
International aid doesn't reach victims
Human rights activist Emmanuel Saffa Abdullai said international and church organizations from Europe and the United States have sent millions of dollars to help amputees like Jarka, but only a fraction has found its way to the victims because of mismanagement and fraud.
Abdullai said he reported the missing money in 2002 to the government Anti-Corruption Commission, which promised to investigate, but dropped the case without explanation, and to the nongovernment National Forum for Human Rights.
“Nothing happened, and nobody cares anymore,” he said.