No Compassion for Sierra Leone’s Amputees

Mamusu Thoronka is a 41-year old trader in Sierra Leone who was brutally disfigured during the country's civil war. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

A harrowing, decade-long civil war endured by the citizens of Sierra Leone is now over, but many scars still remain. Top United Nations emissary Carolyn McAskie, responsible for peace-building, said: "The war has been over for five years. The peace has held; I think that's a Gold Standard. … There is still a lot to do though."

President Ahmed Tejan Kabba has publicly told the nation that his government is bogged down with other overwhelming national priorities; therefore he could not address the individual needs of his people. He advised every Sierra Leonean to start helping themselves.

But thousands of amputees in this tiny nation barely the size of Maine cannot do that. Their personal battles with trauma have only intensified. The amputees' traumatic experiences have caused more emotional, mental and psychological nightmares than their physical wounds could communicate.

Presently, the government is busy with its pending presidential and parliamentary elections that are just a few months away. However, elections are not a curative measure for the thousands of amputees, such as Mamusu Thoronka and Tamba Ngaujah, who are still languishing in Sierra Leone's wilderness, handicapped and in destitution and despondency. They simply cannot fend for themselves.

The disturbing and graphic practice of mutilation and amputation germinated from the seeds sown during the 1991 civil war in the nation's eastern border town of Bormaru.

Sierra Leone shares close proximity and commonality with neighboring Liberia, where the diabolical genesis of dehumanization and brutality started. The government discounted the rebels, who migrated to Liberia to execute heinous crimes with the aid of Liberia's then-president Charles Taylor, as mere rabble-rousers. But history has come to quite a different judgment. Dire warnings fell by the wayside, to be trodden on or ignored. The government assured its citizens that the dreadful situation was under control, but innocent, peaceful Sierra Leonean civilians would encounter a bizarre, barbaric and innovative surgical nightmare.

The psychology behind the amputation of limbs, tongues or ears is the intent to instill panic within the government and in its citizens. In a previous election the people had voted overwhelmingly for President Kabba. Since they used their hands to vote, dismembering their limbs will prevent them from casting another ballot for a democratic government. The rebels' propaganda campaign of fear has been utilized to impose their will on the people of Sierra Leone, just like terrorists in the Middle East.

The United States recently opened a large, newly built embassy in Sierra Leone with C.I.A. and F.B.I. facilities on-site to help combat terrorism in all its forms.

Mamusu Thoronka, the 41 year-old trader shown in the pictures, is among thousands of amputees living in Freetown, Sierra Leone today. She is struggling to support her family of six children on her own. Her husband is in a transition into another relationship and is distant from the family. Welfare services don't exist and no form of help comes from the government.

According to Mamusu: "On January 22, 1999 when the capital city Freetown was attacked by rebels, I attempted to take refuge in a building to escape their vengeance. But they found me, and put my hand on a table and were ready to cut it off with a machete like a butcher would sever animal meat. I begged for mercy asking them to respect God and me, being His child. They told me to point to God with my right hand which they also tried to chop off. They tried three times but failed; the hand of God probably helped or saved me. I still can't use three fingers on my right hand."

"The rebels said that I should get another hand from President Kabba, who had several to spare. I was in agony and the thought of death crossed my mind. I was later taken to hospital but the doctors, too, had fled for their lives. Freetown was infested with hundreds of corpses scattered all around its perimeter. My dangling left hand held by a film of skin had begun to decay. It took a week before I was able to see a doctor who treated my wounds."

"My husband is still distant; I'm sure he has another wife without my knowledge. I persevere to support my children by buying goods like palm-oil in the countryside to resell in Freetown. My responsibility is too much for me. I cannot afford to pay school fees for my six children, as the fees are beyond my reach. I'm appealing for help from the international world, as my two oldest children have dropped out of school."

With her tenacious spirit Mamusu refuses to give up her fight for survival or self-sufficiency. She does cross-border trade between Guinea and Sierra Leone. In Guinea goods are cheaper but a recent embargo put on Guinean goods could threaten her future. She still sells vegetables, such as beans, to enable her to buy clothes and household necessities for her large family. Goods and service are now going at more "cut throat" prices upcountry than in Freetown. Mamusu also rears a few chickens for subsistence and sometimes sells some.

"Rebels have threatened to end our lives," she said. "They say, if the government will not stop talking about amputees and the rebel atrocities that created them, they will get rid of us all. I fear the advent of another war."

Mamusu keeps the welfare of her children paramount in her mind. She is not seeking vengeance or retribution towards her assailants, but instead has offered forgiveness to them, despite the institution of the War Crimes Court to help bring justice to people like her.

"I want someone to take care of my children," she declared. "The former rebel fighters are being well looked after, with skills training and free education for their children. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said we amputees should get a pension but we have seen nothing." It was a Norwegian charity that helped to house her.

She continued: "There is discrimination against amputees at all levels. I cannot cook for myself; I have to direct my daughter Bonki to do the cooking for me. When my children run into disagreements in school their peers tell them, 'Your mother is a half-person.' It is so demeaning and painful for me since I'm a victim of my circumstance. We amputees are really discriminated against in Sierra Leone."

Tamba Ngaujah has a similar story to tell the world, but lacks the megaphone to communicate to the international community his destitution and abandonment by the society that he once served. He had enlisted in the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF) to defend his country against all internal and external aggressions, serving his country diligently and honestly to the best of his ability. When other soldiers defected from the army, he stayed on.

It was in his line of duty that he was captured by the rebels, at the genesis of the warfare in 1991. Tamba suffered double amputation in captivity, becoming the first among thousands of amputees. After surviving his ordeal he was kicked out of the Wilberforce Barracks where he lived in the military quarters. It was during the heavy rainy season when massive flooding is common. His condition did not deter military officials from putting out an evacuation order on his apartment.

Tamba Ngaujah: ex-soldier — Sierra Leone Military Forces. (Photo: Standard Times Press, Freetown, Sierra Leone)

Tamba is now languishing in the streets with his family parading as beggars. No plans have been made to provide him with alternative accommodation. He is appealing to the international community to at least provide him a shelter, considering his current status.

Help for amputees does not seem to be moving on a fast track. There are many NGO's in Sierra Leone, but aid received through them does not appear to trickle down fast enough. It's a deplorable situation. The Human Rights Declaration and The Truth and Reconciliation do not seem applicable to them. Even though a recent United Nations assessment gave Sierra Leone high marks for keeping the peace, a nation that does not take care of its disabled or less fortunate subjects is doomed.

A comprehensive read on the Sierra Leone civil war and its effects on other ordinary people can be found in my book: "Harvest of Hate: Stories and Essays 'Fuel for the Soul'." An extract, "Harvest of Hate- Mary's Saga" has been published on

Photo-journal: Sierra Leone Amputee

Mamusu Thoronka. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

Mamusu Thoronka. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

Mamusu Thoronka and daughter Bonki. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

Mamusu Thoronka utilizing the two functional fingers on her right hand to cook. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

Mamusu Thoronka and family. (Photo: Joseph Winter — BBC African Service)

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