Children practice forgiveness on heels of cruel civil war

Sierra Leoneans cope with physical and emotional challenges after eight years of strife in which unspeakable suffering was inflicted on civilians

The children - putting on their own skits and singing loudly of reconciliation - are already proving what one local counselor calls their extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. They have been maimed and orphaned in a campaign for power that at least equals any in recent history in its calculated cruelty.

Their personal recoveries appear to have begun.

Damba Koroma was just five years old when rebel soldiers raided her village, forced its residents to line up in single file, and one-by-one, cut off their hands.

She was the first victim that day, her mother the next. By day's end, 15 people in Damba's village had been mutilated with machetes; all the others lay dead.

Today, clutching a black Barbie-doll, Damba is a monument to the unspeakable savagery that has characterized eight years of civil war in this small West African country. Some reports estimate the rebels relegated up to 10,000 people to life without arms, legs, ears, even lips.

While the conflict also claimed more than 50,000 lives and forced more than a million people to flee their homes, observers say it was the widespread campaign to mutilate innocent civilians that really won the rebels this war.

"This was an organized campaign to instill fear and rule by terror," says Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch. The group describes atrocities committed in Sierra Leone as "among the worst we have seen anywhere" - and it questions why the rest of the world has been so slow to take notice.

Without the international support he needed to win a military victory, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah signed a peace pact in July that gives the rebels blanket amnesty for their crimes.

The sheer brutality of rebel forces instilled such fear in the country's 4.2 million people that a host of civil society groups and even many amputees were left begging for an end to the violence, even if it meant relinquishing their right to justice.

The crude amputations were the macabre calling card of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the main rebel faction that fought successive governments it accused of corruption and mismanagement.

"In the process of cleaning the system we have wronged the great majority of our countrymen. We have sinned both in the sight of our Sierra Leonean brothers and sisters, for all the terror and the mayhem we unleashed on you in our bid to make Sierra Leone a country that all ... would be proud of," said the RUF in a 1997 statement, the only public admission of wrongdoing.

Mr. Kabbah had won the country's first fair elections in 1996 with a campaign slogan that promised: "The future is in your hands." When the rebels cut off Damba's hand in 1997, they told the maimed people in her northern village: "Go to Kabbah and ask him for a hand." Survivors say it was a line they repeated again and again.

The campaign reached its most horrific height in January, when rebels invaded this seaside capital and rampaged for two weeks with machetes and axes.

Aid workers here say that only a quarter of the mutilated victims lived long enough to get help.

On the west end of the city, little Damba and 157 other amputees are living at a make-shift village of huts built with the help of foreign-aid workers. On the surface at least, it seems some of the handicapped survivors are successfully overcoming the physical challenges. But counselor Victor Gbegba says the emotional scars are often the most difficult to heal. "Some people don't talk, refuse to go outside. People feel somehow ashamed."

In a country where subsistence living is the norm, to be without an arm or leg is to be without an ability to work - to farm and provide for a family.

"I used to help pay for my sister's schooling," says Muctarr Jalloh. "But the rebels cut off my hand, cut off my ear, and killed my parents. Now, we sit idle. We are dependent. This is not how we want to be."

Handicap International based in Lynon, France, set out to help by training locals how to construct prostheses - artificial arms with a hook at the end that allows the user to grasp objects. But they discovered many amputees weren't ready for occupational therapy. "They were shocked to see the hook," says Alexis Randin, a Swiss orthopedic technician. "They were expecting us to give them back their hands."

Some amputees don't reject the artificial limb outright - but they don't use it either. Instead, they go to the city to beg. Increasingly, the amputees are asking for cosmetic prostheses: rubber arms with a hand at the end.

Gbegba says amputees often have to overcome the psychological traumas before they can deal with the physical hurdles. One solution he uses: drama and music therapy. "In some cases, it has helped tremendously," he says.

In the early days of Damba's recovery, she repeatedly asked her mother when her arm would grow back. Today, she is ready to forgive the rebels who maimed her for life. "I must forgive them," she shrugs. "They have already amputated me. There is nothing I can do to get my arm back."

Damba was recently among a group of child amputees who staged a skit they had helped to write. In the drama, she plays dollies with a child soldier. Her parents order her to get away from the evil rebel boy. "No!" cries Damba. "Please mother, let me stay. The ex-combatants are our brothers and sisters."

Watching from the sidelines, Gbegba says these children are proof of Sierra Leoneans' extraordinary capacity for forgiveness. Reconciliation, he adds, may just be possible. "We want peace," Damba's playmates sing in loud unison in the end. "Please give us peace, no more war."

*Part 1 ran yesterday.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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