Monday, December 04, 2006

Disabled in war-scarred S.Leone seek rights and hope


When Bambay Sawaneh came face to face with the man who had ordered rebel fighters to cut off both his forearms three years earlier, he asked a baying crowd not to lynch his attacker. "I told the people if they kill him it will not make my hands come back," said Sawaneh, who recognised the man during a physiotherapy session to help him use prosthetic limbs in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. In what became a trade-mark mutilation during the country's 1991-2002 war, the rebels first tried to cut off the then 15-year-old Sawaneh's arms with an axe. But the blade was too blunt to cut through the flesh and bone, so they resorted to using cutlasses -- local parlance for machetes. "I have forgiven him," Sawaneh, now 22, said of the man he once swore to kill, wiping sweat from his brow with his left stump after a bible class in the steamy coastal city. Thousands like Sawaneh have learned to come to terms with the horrific acts inflicted on them and their families by the notorious Revolutionary United Front rebels, who financed their campaign of murder, rape and mutilation partly by the trade in gems that inspired Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Days ahead of the movie's Dec. 8 United States debut, disabled teams are marking the United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons on Sunday with a soccer jamboree at the national stadium, hoping to press for better treatment. "CHILDREN FEAR US" "People fear you," says Sawaneh, who comes from a farming family that lives in a village in the interior of Sierra Leone. "Children run from you crying; people start winding the car window up when they see you. You can get discouraged." A 2004 census estimated 110,000 of Sierra Leone's 5 million were disabled, a figure development workers say is conservative. During years without a functioning healthcare system, polio has crippled thousands of people who had no access to vaccines. In rural areas, where traditional beliefs are still strong, disability is seen as a sign of witchcraft and children born disabled are often abandoned. In towns, disabled people are overlooked for jobs and training. "We have no policy on disability enacted in Sierra Leone," says Thomas Lebbie, administrator of the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI), an umbrella group. SLUDI is campaigning for a comprehensive survey of the number of disabled people, and has helped draft government-approved legislation enshrining disabled rights. The group says President Tejan Kabbah has failed to deliver on a promise to provide free healthcare to disabled people, and has threatened to boycott elections planned for July next year if the bill is not enacted. "This is a country where the President says one thing, and then his ministers and officials do another thing." There is also fear that the plight of Sierra Leone's disabled people is being forgotten internationally. Development workers on the ground say crucial funds and interest are waning. "Disability at this point doesn't have the sex appeal it once used to," says David Thomforde, an occupational therapist at Handicap International, a French aid group that funds three of Sierra Leone's six physical rehabilitation centres. "It's essential that the international donor community doesn't pull out." FINDING COURAGE At a roundabout in Freetown, amid the stench of rotting food and limping dogs, amputees sit beside their crutches, begging for scraps from passers-by. Foday Mara, 48, once a farmer, counts 1,200 Leones from ($0.50) a ripped shirt pocket -- his day's proceeds. Rebels ambushed him on his way to his crops, broke his front teeth with a rifle butt, tied him up, beat him and chopped off his right hand just above the wrist. He lists his prospects bleakly: "No help. No job. No money. No land." Yet amid the painful reminders of past horrors are signs of healing and hope. "I was always crying ... I was thinking that I'm nothing," Sawaneh said, adding he was once suicidal. Helped by foreign funding, he now farms 56 chickens in Freetown, selling about 40 eggs a day for 15,000 Leones ($6.10). He has also now bought a small plot of land inland at Makeni, where he hopes to keep more chickens and grow crops. "I'm excited. It is the one thing that I have achieved," he said. Sawaneh's prosthetic limbs allow him to use a hoe, and thanks to an operation by the Red Cross he has enough mobility in his right stump to open text messages on his mobile phone. "When this thing happened to me I didn't want to mingle with people. Now I have courage. Now I'm actually happy. I know I'm a person and not a nothing.

Source: Reuters AlertNet - FEATURE-Disabled in war-scarred S.Leone seek rights and hope