Saturday, February 10, 2007

All Africa amputee soccer features crutches and courage

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (Reuters) -- Obie Sesay has stood on the pitches of Old Trafford and Anfield, the hallowed homes of Manchester United and Liverpool soccer clubs, but on the streets of Freetown he has to beg to survive.

After losing his left leg in Sierra Leone's civil war, Sesay is hoping to help his country's team win Africa's first amputee football tournament, which is being played in the sultry heat of the coastal capital's national stadium.

"This team has given me courage," says Sesay, who like other competitors plays with crutches, his amputated left stump wrapped in bandages or cloth.

The All African Amputee Football Tournament, which kicked off late on Friday in Freetown and runs until Wednesday, brings together competitors from Angola, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and host nation Sierra Leone.

The amputees play with speed and dexterity, maneuvering on their crutches to kick and control the ball with their single legs. If a player uses a crutch to hit the ball, this is "hand ball" and a free kick is awarded to the other side.

Sierra Leone's home team, formed in an amputee camp in western Freetown, has already competed in tours and tournaments in Britain, Russia and Brazil.

Its experiences abroad sowed the seeds for a competition in Africa, where most amputees have lost their limbs through war.

"When we came back from Russia last year, we thought 'We need to do something in Africa'," says Jadati Mambu, president of the Single Leg Amputee Sports Club of Sierra Leone, which is organizing the event.

"We're here to explain to our African brothers that after war, after conciliation, something positive is happening. We're like ambassadors of peace," said Mambu, who is star goalkeeper of the Sierra Leone side. He is missing one of his arms.

Blood diamonds and brutality

Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war was fueled by an illicit trade in so-called blood diamonds, which kept warring factions flush with guns and narcotics.

Child soldiers were abducted from their families, indoctrinated by their commanders, and fed cocktails of cocaine, heroin and gun powder. They participated in widespread atrocities, such as horrific mutilations of civilians.

Many of the Sierra Leone amputee players are victims of gunshot wounds, often received as they tried to escape rebels or were caught in the crossfire.

Center-back Sesay was shot in the back of the kneecap when he tried to save his mother, who was being whipped by rebels. When he finally made it to a hospital, his lower leg had become so infected it had to be removed.

Players from neighboring Liberia and Angola have also experienced the ravages of war firsthand. The sportsmen from Ghana and Nigeria lost limbs in accidents or through infection.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest nations in the world, and despite sustained economic growth in the five years of peace since the war, basic social services are weak.

Amputees forced to beg

A cash-strapped government, which can barely cover civil servants' salaries, provides no state support for amputees, whose food and lodgings are taken care of during the tournament.

Youth unemployment runs high and job opportunities are few: Amputees face huge difficulties in finding work and discrimination and stigma are rife.

"There is nothing for disabled people in this country," says Mambu. "They have to beg. That's why they started this team."

Progress on a new bill through Parliament that enshrines the rights of disabled people is slow. In mid-December, the United Nations adopted a convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which Sierra Leone has not yet ratified.

"We want the meaning of this convention to be implemented in Sierra Leone," says Kabbakeh Noah, secretary general of the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI).

When the amputee tournament was first proposed, the stadium authorities did not want to host it, as they said the amputees' crutches would ruin the turf. The players angrily denied this, and went to the stadium to show this would not be the case.

Link to All Africa amputee soccer features crutches and courage - CNN.com