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Amputee Camp from War in Sierra Leone

WAR CRIMES COURT / AMPUTEE CAMP / SEX SLAVE

The dusty Murraytown Amputee Camp transports one backwards to the aftermath of a nineteenth century war, to archaic medieval ferocity.

There are camps for polio survivors in Sierra Leone; there is a leprosy encampment. But, this, the limbless enclave of Sierra Leone is where survival is rawest. 

One or two people spend their nights on a bench; others lie unprotected on the dusty ground.  Tin sheeting weighed down with stones cover a few dotted sites. There is no running water, no electricity. Dust rises and chokes, it causes sand-clogged eyes to pour tears. In extreme heat survivors with at least one arm, fan themselves with large leaves. 

Residents are listless and lost. They have squatted here in this makeshift plot, (unofficially called Vulnerable People’s Camp) since 1999 when the MSF France group (Doctors Without Borders) formed the camp.   

Together with assistance from World Vision Food Programme, and a Catholic organisation that runs a primary school for child amputees, the 200 –or-so odd amputees have managed to subsist. Many of them have helpless family members living in the camp with them.

Now the 10-year civil war has ended.  The Government is in control. They need the land. Everybody has to disband and live elsewhere, wherever that may be. 

In any event, it is obvious that Murraytown Camp amputees have served the purpose of providing Government propaganda and publicity - a means of soliciting emotional and financial support.  

An eighteen-year old lad supine on a blue-bench half lifts himself.  “My elders and the Executive Chairman have gone to town to beg for alms. We are not allowed to talk to reporters.  WE don’t allow people to enter the camp.” 

“Over the last few years four or five journalists from other countries managed to get in. They stare at us. They take pictures. They all promised to tell the world our story and to let us know what happens.

But, nothing happens. We never see the reports.   Why should you be different?” he asks. 

I gesture round him and explain that he is representative of all these lost voices.  To give him a name would name the rest. I tell him all that is left is a belief in revenge of those who had power; that death, loss, hands broken off, and head separated from bodies will be avenged in the Truth & Reconciliation Court.   

This touches a raw nerve in his scarred psychosis and relents. “I have complied with the United Nations by allowing them to film me and to record my story.  It has gone to Mary Robinson Head of United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.  The worst perpetrates of war atrocities against civilians are going to be prosecuted and I am going to testify.”  

 “My name is Jabaty Mambu. On January 6th 1999, nearly 7 000 residents were killed when the rebels invaded the city of Freetown.  At 7 PM I was at home with my parents and other elders who lived with us.  They burst in, five of them.  ‘Get Up and sit on the floor they shouted.’ 

“We complied. I partially turned round for one moment.  Just then they shot my parents and everybody else.  I begged. Take me with you.  I will fight for you, thinking I could escape later. They refused.’ 

“One 25 year old ordered a boy of about five.  ‘Give me the axe.’  “He then told me to put out my arm. I showed him my student ID card.  He was disinterested.  I was forced to put out my left arm, and he started cutting.”  Jabaty lifts his arm to show the broad bracelet of scarring. 

“Then he stopped and asked, ‘Which arm do you use to write with?’  “I told him I used my right hand thinking that at least he would spare that hand. Immediately he abandoned my left arm and forced me to put out my right arm.  I felt something sharp, and I lost consciousness. When I woke up the next morning

I was surrounded by the dead bodies. My severed arm lay on the floor. 

“I was very lucky because the west African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) happened to come by that morning and they found me. It doesn’t matter who is who.  Everybody killed everybody. Nobody was to be trusted.  But, in this case they took me to the Brookfield Community Hospital.  There I saw other amputees with blood all over their clothes – fifty or sixty of them -.  We were all fortunate to survive.  Others died from pain or they bled to death because they had limbs cut off in the provinces and couldn’t get to hospitals in time. A few had leeches attached to the wounds sucking off their blood, thereby keeping infection away. That saved their lives.” 

“I have been in this camp now for one-and-a-half years.  All this time I looked for help so that I could go back to school.  I have been to all the NGO’s.  I went to see the school principal. Fortunately he interviewed me. Usually they will not speak to pupils, only to the parents.  But, he allowed me to pay reduced school fees for a while.   So, I sell the food we are given by World Food Programme to obtain money for school fees and try to survive on whatever I can get to eat. People share.  I walk four miles each day to school and four miles back.  Now, reduced fees have stopped and I have to find enough money to pay regular school fees of $100 a year. I really want to be a lawyer. I also have to find a place to live”

Jabaty gestures at a woman with both legs amputated above the knee, placing spinach in bundles. “We all have to leave here. ” 

Chances are slim that more than 50 people will be jailed for their crimes.  Where would one begin in a country of such complete crime?  Still Jabaty at least has a slim chance.  That’s more than Bintu Hook (12), although she too considers herself privileged. 

With her tightly braided plaits sprouting from her head like antennae and her new dress Bintu looks as normal as any adolescent.  Sometimes nowadays she even giggles. 

On December 21st 1998 Bintu was abducted by a group of RUF from her school with seven friends.  

Bintu was chosen to become the “wife” of the rebel Commander nicknamed Bullet.  As they walked through the country other children from villages were abducted.  Boys were forced to carry rebel equipment and work in the camps as well as murder and chop apart their neighbours.  The girls were pumped insane with drugs and told to rob from frightened villagers.  They were also raped again and again.  Children’s food was mixed with blood of victims to brainwash them into believing that they had now received evil powers.  Some rebels etched RUF into children’s chests, so they could never return to, or feel at ease in their known societies. Others had to eat gunpowder ‘for strength’. 

Bintu was well cared for by Commander Bullet.  He took no other “wife”, and he protected her from other warriors, rebels, insurgents, Government forces and West African, peacekeeping forces. Bullets even drugged her food before sex.  He valued having a virgin bride and she even thinks she grew to love him. 

Bintu marched with the rebels who ambushed village after village. The girls and women would bury the rebels that had been killed by the Kamajors (fighting for Govt)..     At some point Bullet himself was murdered in the jungle by one of his bodyguards who resented Bullets having being promoted to a higher rank by the RUF.   The bodyguard named ‘Forty Barrel’ inherited Bintu, and he took over ‘Bullets’ position as rebel commander, even wearing the dead commander’s clothes.  

Bintu was one of four wives; two young girls and two women. As his favourite, ‘Forty Barrel’ raped Bintu – often – and with sharp foreign objects - according to doctors.  

She was forced to march for months through the jungles and raped, continually.  She was forced to watch other women being raped, sometimes before being shot.  She was FORCED TO WATCH BURNT RUBBER BEING THROWN INTO VICTIMS EYES, SHE WITNESSED people being burnt to death, AND CHILDREN HAVING TO MURDER THEIR OWN FAMILIES. 

“WHEN I HAD TO TAKE COKE AND OTHER DRUGS I WASN’T SCARED.  PEOPLE RAN AWAY WHEN I APPROACHED THEM.  THEY SAW MY EYES WERE RED; THAT I WAS MAD FROM THE DRUGS AND THEY DROPPED THEIR POSESSIONS AND RAN AWAY QUICKLY.  IT WAS EASY AT THOSE TIMES FOR ME TO STEAL FOR THE REBELS. 

Once while dragging her fatigued body through a village she was recognised by a fleeing villager who happened to be her cousin.  Bintu ignored her cousin. Showing signs of recognition meant slaughter.  But that night, when the rebels left the camp her cousin slunk into Bintu’s room and the two girls sprinted into the forest until they collapsed out of breath and lay low. 

Thereafter they dragged their worn bodies only at night for weeks until they found Bintu’s old headmaster.  

Traumatised, ill bleeding from a fistula tear from vagina through to the bladder and the rectum and constantly leaking urine and faeces Bintu was finally taken to Cottage Hospital in Freetown. There was little left of the maraudered and plundered hospitals and barely any medical staff who had not flown or been murdered.  However Bintu was anaesthetised for surgical repair.  The operation proved so complicated that doctor abandoned the attempt. She lay in hospital almost four months, until the Anastasis – a missionary Mercy Ship vessel  – sailed into Freetown and a Red Cross Worker took her from Cottage Hospital to be screened by the ship gynaecologist. 

The 75-pound child has recovered from the complicated surgery and finally was reunited with her mother who is now a displaced person in a Guinea refugee camp. 

Bintu now lives with a Muslim family, the mother having come across her sobbing and alone in the Cottage Hospital in Freetown and visited her daily on board the Anastasis. 

It is unlikely that there will be justice for her in the long term; it is more unlikely that she will be invited to testify at the TRC, or war crimes court even though UN observers have been sent from Geneva to investigate the exploitation of young girls.  The process is so slow.  Bintu will always remember hell, but she has grown so immune to seeing death and mutilation that the ability to value life has disappeared.

Bintu swallows the tragedy with a shrug.  “It’s sad, she says, “But I am used to it now.”

 

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