Mariatu Kamara has just arrived in Ottawa to help promote an exhibition on women civilians caught in the crossfire of conflicts at the Canadian War Museum.
Ms. Kamara, who lived through the civil war in Sierra Leone, hopes events like this will help raise awareness about the impact of war on civilians, particularly children.
She exudes a natural warmth. But she also seems self-conscious about her appearance: At the end of her arms are stumps where there once were hands.
They are reminders of the depths of barbarism to which Sierra Leone sank during a devastating civil war between 1991 and 2002. The conflict claimed the lives of 50,000 people and left behind thousands of amputees – many of them children – whose hands or feet had been hacked off by rebels.
In 1999, Kamara, then a 12-year-old farm girl, was abducted from her family by rebel soldiers who were not much older than she was. While they pointed guns at her head, they cut off both her hands, telling her they were doing it so that she would never be able to vote.
The passage of time still hasn't dulled her sense of shock and bewilderment.
"Imagine! A 12-year-old girl! For goodness' sake! I mean, cutting off her hands! What do you expect that girl to become like?" Kamara recalls.
She passed out after the attack. After regaining consciousness, she found herself amid a sea of dead bodies in a village on fire. She managed to crawl into a forest, where she spent the night.
The next day, she met a man whose act of kindness changed her life: He offered her a mango to eat.
"Just the fact that that was my first fruit after I was released by the rebels and also the first food..., you know, after I lost my hands...," she says, welling up with emotion at the memory.
"I wasn't able to hold the mango as I used to with my regular hands," she says.
While she knew life without hands was going to be difficult, she found the inner strength to carry on. That incident prompted the title of her autobiography, "The Bite of the Mango," which has now been published in a dozen languages.
Kamara spent three years in an amputee camp, where she was forced to beg on the street for survival.
But her situation was about to change dramatically. A Canadian family read about her plight in a news-paper and offered her a home.
For Kamara, it was a lifeline.
"I was happy. I didn't know anything about Canada. I was happy to get out of where I was, to go somewhere where I could have a better life," she recalls.
In Canada she completed public school. Today she is studying at a college in Toronto to become a social worker. Remarkably, she works without the use of prosthetics.
"If I am counseling a victim, I will be able to use my own experience and be able to understand where they are coming from," she says enthusiastically.
She is also busy in her role as UNICEF Canada's Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. Talking from the heart and personal experience, she makes a powerful impression on groups she addresses in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere.
Kamara's story "demonstrates the devastation conflict has on children's lives but also the power of the human spirit," says Lindsay Seeger, manager of community engagement for UNICEF Canada.
Doreen Waugh, a teacher and librarian at College Street Public School in Smithville, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, says that a visit from Kamara left a profound impression on her students. Two students, in seventh and eighth grade, had been so inspired after reading Kamara's book that they invited her to speak at their school.
The girls prepared their classmates with a presentation about the conflict in Sierra Leone. Students also wanted to experience what life without hands would be like: They decided to spend the day with their hands covered by socks – forcing them to rely on fellow students for help.
Kamara's speech got the students thinking, Ms. Waugh says.
"They asked some good questions about her life and asked about how she manages," Waugh says.
The students – who were about the same age as Kamara was when she was attacked – were shocked by what they heard.
"It struck home that she had no idea why she was targeted," Waugh says. "It was such a random act. It was a paradigm shift [for the students] that it could happen to someone like them."
Kamara has been recognized for her work championing the cause of war victims by the Women's Refugee Commission, based in New York City, which honored her with a Voice of Courage award.
Liv Ullmann, the award-winning actress and cofounder of the commission, commended Kamara for her "incredible resilience in the face of adversity, for her compassion, and for her quest to tirelessly advocate for refugees and the displaced."
Kamara says she hopes to visit Sierra Leone soon – and she plans to ensure that her fellow war victims are high up on the list of priorities for President Ernest Bai Koroma. "When I go back, for sure, I will remind him!" she says.
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