Disabled in Sierra Leone make gains

Operation Rise, run by an American organization called The Peace Project, handed out crutches on Sept. 21, 2011, to landmine victims, polio sufferers and amputees from the brutal decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. A boy carries some new crutches at one of the Operation Rise distribution centers in Aberdeen, Freetown.
Credit: Jeremy Fokkens

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Ten thousand pairs of crutches were distributed across Sierra Leone in a single day.

The country's landmine victims, amputees and polio sufferers all benefited from “Operation Rise,” run by an American organization called The Peace Project.

“I realized the incredible energetic shift and social and psychological impact of getting 10,000 people on their feet on one day would have on the morale of the country," said organizer Lisa Schultz. "And I knew that to engage people worldwide in caring about a problem caused by a war that ended 10 years ago, we had to do something big that would engage their imagination.”

The event was held on International Peace Day, to highlight the fact that many of the beneficiaries were disabled during Sierra Leone's civil war.

Amputees, regularly seen begging on the streets of Freetown, are a visible reminder of the brutal conflict.

There are no reliable statistics for how many people had feet, hands, arms, lips, ears or genitalia cut off during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war from 1991 to 2002.

Some estimates are as high as 10,000 people who suffered amputations, but Handicap International and Médecins sans Frontières put the figure at around 4,000 deliberate amputations during the conflict.

Some of the survivors lining up to receive new crutches on International Peace Day were planning to use the equipment not just for getting around but also for playing competitive football, or soccer.

The Single Leg Amputee Sports Association was formed in 2001, according to spokesperson Albert Manley Mustapha.

“The purpose was to reintegrate amputees back into society to give them self reliance, dignity and respect and to make them ambassadors of peace for this nation, promoting peace building and trauma recovery,” said Mustapha.

There are now 300 competitive amputee soccer players forming six teams across Sierra Leone. The national team travels abroad meeting soccer stars and playing exhibition matches against able-bodied teams.

In addition to soccer, amputees receive education and skills training, according to Mustapha. Some of the players have married, a sign of social acceptance that that was previously unlikely for an amputee.

“During the time I was not playing football, I was marginalized," said Umaru Samdy, 20, from Sierra Leone’s second city, Bo. "People normally say because we are disabled we are good for nothing, but due to the football, it has raised me up and it has made people think that without two legs I can do something better.”

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Amputations during Sierra Leone's civil war included the notorious “long sleeve” (amputation at the wrist) and “short sleeve” (amputation at the elbow). Others lost limbs to bullets and landmines, meaning that there is a group of people permanently physically disabled by the conflict. But there are many other disabled people in Sierra Leone. Assistance for the amputees, such as a Norwegian Refugee Council's home-building project, leads to complaints that war victims receive more aid than the thousands of other disabled.

“The number of people amputated during the war as a percentage of the disabled population is very small," said Yann Cornic, program director for Handicap International in Sierra Leone. "After 10 years, when talking about disability you cannot only focus on this group.”

Osman Bah said he only realized that disabled people could join the mainstream of society when he went to the United Kingdom to complete his Ph.D. Today he works as the the regional program manager for Leonard Cheshire Disability, an NGO that works across West Africa to provide education, training and advocacy for all disabled people.

“Disability in our culture is a big stigma associated with witchcraft, curses, devilish attack or crimes committed by your grandparents or parents," said Bah. "When I contracted polio, aged three, they associated it with witchcraft.”

Only in the last decade have people started talking about disability in Sierra Leone; previously it was a taboo topic, he said.

Thanks to the Millennium Development Goals, vulnerable people have gained recognition, said Bah. But despite the recent passing of Sierra Leone’s first Disability Act, things remain difficult for disabled people.

“It is a step forward, but writing and signing policy is one thing but implementation is another,” said Cornic of Handicap International.

Almost 70 percent of Sierra Leone's disabled people of working age report having no income at all, according to research by Jean-Frances Trani for University College London and Leonard Cheshire Disability carried out in 2009. 

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The situation is similar across West Africa, according to Conic. He said disabled people face the same challenges as the wider population: access to health care, education and a decent livelihood, but with additional complications.

And estimated 15 percent of the world’s population is disabled, according to the World Bank and the World Health Organization. And being disabled in some of the poorest countries of the world is especially challenging.

The distribution of 10,000 crutches across Sierra Leone, helped thousands rise up to meet the challenges. Bah concluded: “We are not asking for special privileges but a level platform.”

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