Child war victim shows courage to go on

"I just think it’s time to let go, you know? Forgive them," says Mariatu Kamara, 22, of the child soldiers who hacked off her hands in Sierra Leone 10 years ago. Kamara starts at George Brown College in Toronto and her new book, The Bite of the Mango, soon will be on bookstore shelves in Canada. (Photo: Tony Bock / Toronto Star)

Loss of hands doesn't deter young woman from Sierra Leone

Mariatu Kamara is 22, pays close attention to fashion, makeup and hairstyles, and, like many young women in Canada, starts college today.

But, unlike others at her downtown campus, Kamara is doing it all without hands. Hers were hacked off in a machete attack in her native Sierra Leone a decade ago.

Kamara is unlike other students as well in that she has a book coming out in the next few weeks, published by Toronto's Annick Press and expected to be a huge hit with its target high school audience.

The Bite of the Mango tells her story so far: of having her hands amputated when she was 12; of being raped by a village man just before that, and of having the son resulting from that assault; of spending years wracked with guilt after the infant died at 10 months, convinced she'd killed him by not loving him enough.

Hers is not an easy story to read. But The Bite of the Mango brings a new perspective among recent accounts of kids caught in Africa's civil wars – that of a girl child.

Kamara has been in Canada six years. Her incredulity at her new life, and her gratitude, bring tears that lie close to the surface.

"Coming from a place of war where you had nothing, now you're in a country where everywhere you turn there's opportunity that will make your life better and help other people around the world ..." she says.

Toronto's bustling metropolis is a far cry from the Magborou village of 200 people and eight huts, where Kamara was raised with extended family. All children worked on the communal farm as soon as they were physically able, most at age 6.

Her reality began to shift when she was 11, with the sudden threat of attacks by the government-opposed Revolutionary United Front.

The actual attack came without warning, except for Kamara's dream of burning palm oil, signifying spilled blood, the night before. While heading with her cousins to a nearby village, they walked into an ambush.

She was held captive for several hours, and remembered an aunt's advice to answer "yes" when asked if she liked what she saw after witnessing the murder of villagers she knew.

One of those she saw shot to death was a man from a neighbouring village who had raped her weeks earlier. Kamara didn't then know she was pregnant.

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The book, co-written by award-winning Canadian magazine journalist Susan McClelland and distributed by Firefly, gives an unflinching account of her brutalization by boy soldiers her age.

"It took the boy two attempts to cut off my right hand," Kamara writes. "The first swipe didn't get through the bone, which I saw sticking out in all different shapes and sizes. He brought the machete down again in a different spot, higher up on my arm. This time, my hand flew from the rock onto the ground."

The rebels' signature was mutilation and during the decade-long conflict, an estimated 20,000 civilians had arms, legs, lips and ears amputated with machetes and axes. "Go see the president," the child soldier told her. "Tell him to give you new hands."

The book's title is a nod to her spirit, referring to a mango offered by a man she encountered that same night. He held the fruit to her mouth, but she insisted on taking it, holding it in the clotting stumps she'd wrapped in a sheet.

She tells of her journey to the capital, Freetown, her medical care and pregnancy, and her next few years living in a refugee camp, begging on the streets each day.

Kamara's dark story, told to a visiting journalist, so moved an Owen Sound resident who read about her in a local paper that she was sponsored to come to Canada. She was immediately embraced by Toronto's Sierra Leonean community.

This week she begins a program at George Brown College that teaches counselling and advocacy for women and children who have experienced violence.

"Sometimes I do find it difficult, but you know the people that I meet, they're just so wonderful. They don't even think that I have a problem. They just take me as a normal person," she says.

Her arms and missing hands are usually covered by her sleeves but a ringing cellphone prompts her to peel them back and dive into her purse to deftly answer it. Prostheses, she's decided, are too expensive and not worth the effort.

Kamara says she is committed to school, so requests for appearances – already coming in from across the country – will be met when possible. Recent international book fairs have created a buzz and it is expected the international book rights will soon be bought.

As well, she's a UNICEF Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. She's also featured in an upcoming documentary about child war victims and was filmed on a visit to Sierra Leone last February, where she toured health and educational facilities.

Kamara recognizes the opportunity, and responsibility, to give back. "I have food around me, clothes everywhere," she says. "I don't think that, 'Tomorrow I have to go to town and start begging,' but (those left behind) still have to go through that."

As for the child soldiers who maimed her? "I just think it's time to let go, you know? Forgive them. They are also our brothers. They suffered, too," Kamara says.

Today, however, her focus is forward – finish school, get a good job and then help make concrete changes in Sierra Leone.

And she wants to build a home there, where her whole family can live and she can visit. "Oh yeah, that's my dream always – a big house," she smiles. "That's a big dream, but we'll work it out."