By Mariatu Kamara
Lockdowns are helping a lot of countries flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. But for some war-wounded or amputees in Sierra Leone in West Africa, victims of that country's civil war of the 90s, it is depriving them of their source of livelihood- begging in the streets of the capital, Freetown. Our Editor, Osman Benk Sankoh looks at how Canada-based Sierra Leonean double- amputee, Mariatu Kamara is mobilising funds to support them during this coronavirus pandemic.
A terrible legacy of the Sierra Leone civil war is the amputations inflicted on defenceless civilians by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). With promises mostly unkept by previous governments to take care of their welfare, a key recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, most of these victims have returned to the streets of the capital city, Freetown, begging.
As the country battles to contain a coronavirus that has now resulted in over 150 confirmed infection cases and at least eight deaths (with the figures rising), there are fears that the amputees may struggle to survive even if not directly from the virus. A three-day lockdown later extended to a fourteen-day partial lockdown makes it difficult for them to go out begging, their only means of taking care of themselves and their families. They say they are suffering and think they have been forgotten.
Now based in Toronto and in her 30s, Mariatu Kamara has been wondering how the amputees were going to survive the pandemic if they do not go out to beg. She has subsequently set up a gofundme account (https://www.gofundme.com/f/food-to-survive-during-covid19-lock-down ) to mobilise funds that would be sent back to Sierra Leone for them to be able to have food and take care of some basic needs. Mariatu hopes to raise US$2000 to cater to fifty families. So far, she has received US$400, which she used to get several bags of rice, the country's staple, and other food items.
Visibly happy, and with tears of joy, Adamsay Kamara, an amputee said words were not enough to thank Mariatu and her friends for the kind gesture. She said they are suffering, and the unexpected windfall was going to help them and their families. Abdul Sankoh, another war-wounded, praised Mariatu for not abandoning them. He said they were happy not only for the food items they received but also because someone whom they all suffered together was still out there fighting for their welfare. Most of the beneficiaries are people Mariatu had lived with at the amputee camp. Before she migrated to Canada, and while at the Aberdeen Amputee Camp in the west-end of Freetown, Mariatu depended on begging on the streets to survive.
The war was mostly about diamonds and the thirst for power. And for then 11-year-old Mariatu Kamara who had never been to Freetown let alone meet with the President, all she prayed for each year was for a good harvest, beautiful clothes and a charming suitor when she was due for marriage. Her entire life revolves around Magborou village, in northern Sierra Leone. With rumours of the RUF rebels planning on invading her village, Mariatu fled to a neighbouring town to seek refuge but was sexually abused there and was not aware that she had been impregnated.
Then, the rebels struck. Mariatu was captured, tortured and her hands were cruelly chopped off. Before doing so, the rebels told her to go with a message for President Tejan Kabbah (late) in the capital Freetown. "I have never been to the city and did not even know who the President was," she said. Her rapist also lost his life during the attack.
According to the finding of the TRC, "of the 40,242 violations reported to the Commission, 4,513 out of 313,196 (of whom the age category of the victim is known), were committed against children age 17 years of age or under."
Mariatu says she was motivated to fight for the welfare of the amputees because "I feel the pain and trauma that these people go through." This is not the first time she has provided support for the less fortunate back in her country. At different times, according to her, she has been involved in collecting and distributing used clothing, shoes for kids and school supplies to people in Sierra Leone.
Six years ago, Mariatu was given a parcel of land some 38 miles from Freetown by the Paramount Chief of Masiaka for a community development project. "I hope to construct a multi-purpose building that would host a counselling centre to deal with trauma issues of the amputees, a playground for kids and a resource centre for vocational training," she said.
Mariatu is a UNICEF Canada special representative (a goodwill role) for children in armed conflicts where she performs speaking engagements and helps with fundraising. Her story of how she survived the war is documented in a book titled, 'The Bite of The Mango,' written with the help of Canadian journalist, Susan McClelland. The title, according to her, was apt because, after she regained consciousness after her harrowing experience with the rebels, a bite from the mango was the first food she ate.
The TRC devoted an entire chapter of its final report to recommend comprehensive reparation measures for the most vulnerable survivors- amputees, severally wounded, survivors of sexualised violence and war widows. Mariatu has indicated her willingness to work with the current President of her country, Julius Maada Bio, to making the welfare of the victims of the war a priority.
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA) says it has provided a cash transfer of 250,000 Leones each to eight thousand persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups to, “ stabilize household consumption since inability to engage in street begging will seriously affect livelihoods especially during the three-day lockdown.”
Melqosh Mission International has also provided for over 160 war victim families with Veronica buckets and hand sanitizers.58 war victim families in northern Sierra Leone and in the outskirt of Freetown also received a bag or rice and two bundles of water each, according to Pastor Faith Okrafo-Smart, the head of the organization. She has also been involvedin getting masks for the war-wounded.