Penalties of war: Sierra Leone's amputees' soccer club

In the conflict-ravaged West African nation, a football club for one-legged men is bringing hope and opportunity to the disabled.

Although three former players have been able to go to college thanks to the club’s efforts, its future is in doubt, thanks to a lack of consistent funding, especially from central government.
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They arrive in a trickle at first, some by taxi, others on motorbikes. Before long, an area of shaded ground protected by large overhanging trees is overrun by young men eager to begin the weekly ritual of football practice. One of the men sits patiently pumping up a bag of balls. Another absentmindedly fiddles with his training kit.

This is a familiar scene played out on football pitches and practice grounds around the world, although this is no ordinary sports club. We are in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and these are the men of the Single Leg Amputee Sports Club, an organisation that is helping to heal the deep wounds of this battle-scarred West African nation.

As football goes, this is about as far as you can get from the star-studded teams who will travel to Abu Dhabi in the next few days for this year's Fifa Club World Cup. Nevertheless, this specialist sports club based on the shores of the Atlantic demands the attention of the world.

It is eight years since Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war ended. The conflict pitted members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against the government. The war began in 1991 when Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal, led a rebellion against the government of president Joseph Momoh, seizing towns along the border with Liberia. Crisis followed as consecutive governments struggled to deal with the rebels and the country fell into a repetitive series of military coups.

Both United Nations peacekeepers and Ecomog, a Nigerian-led, West African intervention force, were deployed in Sierra Leone to attempt to restore peace. They were joined by the First Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment, who were stationed in Freetown in 2000 with orders to take control of the capital. Sankoh was eventually captured later that year, although it would take until 2002 before a stable and lasting peace was achieved. Years after the conflict ended, Sierra Leone lurches uneasily towards economic crisis. The average annual wage is just $320, unemployment is high, opportunity is slight and the government remains heavily reliant on international aid.

Today, the sports club, with its proud motto - "not mere victims of war, but ambassadors of peace" - stands both as a remnant of Sierra Leone's bloody past and a symbol of hope. This is a country where stories of cruelty and horror are traded as the common currency of everyday life. Thousands of people died in the civil war. Thousands more had their hands or feet hacked off by the rebels.

"The project started in 2001, close to the end of the war," explains Mambud Samai, the sports club's programme co-ordinator. "I started doing some counselling services among amputees in Freetown's Aberdeen [amputee camp] and an old white woman came from the United States, who was an amputee, and who specialised in amputation rehabilitation.

"The [amputees] talked to her about how they had lost everything and she told them about how single-leg amputees played football on crutches in the United States. The men had no idea about such things, but she later sent us the game rules, an instruction video and a box of single shoes for us to train in." By late February 2001, the Single Leg Amputee Sports Club of Sierra Leone had been formed.

The years that followed saw the club, which today has around 300 members, become a cultural phenomenon. It receives no formal government assistance but is backed by the StreetFootballWorld initiative, an international organisation which encourages global partnerships to engineer social change, and has received some funding from Fifa, the sport's global governing body.

The club has made several promotional tours overseas to Europe and helped arrange the first All-African Amputee Football Championship in 2007, when representatives from the club competed on home soil against national teams from Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria. Foreign travel aside, the club also offers much-needed physical, mental and educational support to its members.

"The football programme has brought a lot of benefits to the amputees," says Samai, one of the club's members who briefly fled to neighbouring Guinea in 1999 to escape the civil war, before returning to his home country at the end of the conflict.

"It has provided a fellowship where we are all able to share our problems and has offered a kind of therapy. It has become a very important tool for [the men] to address their educational issues too. We use football as a device to identify their other needs," he says. "For instance, we've been able to provide computer training, scholarships and finance opportunities so our players can set up their own businesses. Indeed, most of them are now able to survive by doing some petty trading on the streets."

Samai is more ambitious still for the group: "I'm always telling [the amputees] that you can still go to school and do business - that people can still respect you in society, even if you are an amputee."

As practice begins, the players, lean heavily on their crutches as they gather round Albert Manley "Wizzy" Mustapha, the club's public relations officer, before heading out across the road towards their crude training pitch on Aberdeen Beach at the west end of the capital.

"Wizzy is reminding them about the importance of the organisation," says Kemoh Shariff, one of the team coaches. "When they arrive, they are thinking about different things, about money, about this, about that, so he is lecturing them on what's been happening since they last met, it keeps them focused."

The cool Atlantic breeze does little to stifle the harsh rays of the Freetown sun as the men begin their warm-up.

Amputee football, when played competitively, is seven-a-side. Matches last for 25 minutes each half and are played on a smaller-than-average pitch. As the men power across the playing surface, their hardened frames shrugging off spirited challenges from opponents, their crutches digging and twisting in the sand, it is hard not to be impressed by their skill. This game is every bit as competitive as its more popular counterpart, even if each player bears the scars of his past. Still, for most of the players, football has given them a life, which has stretched the limits of their own imagination.

Bonor Kargbo was just 25 when he lost his left leg after stepping on an anti-personnel mine during the troubles. He credits the club with helping him regain his fragile confidence.

"It has made me more comfortable in myself, more self-assured, more confident, because I have been able to meet a lot of people and lots of fellow amputees since I started playing football," says Kargbo, 38, a father-of-three.

"When you are an amputee or have any other kind of disability you have to find something to do. You cannot just sit down and wait for somebody to come and help you."

Kargbo, an imposing defender, also believes that if football can bring him peace, it can have a similar bearing on the world at large.

"Football can make the world a happier place. Even in the amputee soccer that we're playing, we're trying to promote peace. Our problems came from the war, so we're trying to tell people that war is not nice, we have to come together - we are all brothers and sisters, never mind about skin colour."

Maxwell Fornah is another success story. A mercurial striker with a dazzling smile, he recalls the day he lost his leg: "It was January 6, 1999 and there was a rebel incursion in my village. I was a student then, only 18 years old. The rebels shot me in the back of my left leg as I stood outside my house. I was lucky, the Red Cross saved my life and took me to the hospital, but they were forced to amputate," he says. His sister died in the same episode, he tells me.

Fornah sees the club as vital to his own health and well-being.

"When I join up with my friends to play amputee football, I forget about my troubles. Before I had my amputation, I was studying, but I stopped attending school after my operation," he says.

Things are getting better, though. "The club is teaching me computer software skills. I should have advanced my own education, but I didn't. Thankfully, the club is helping me now.

"I don't want to go out onto the streets and beg people for money - they'll say, 'Look, they're amputees, they're only street begging.' That's why I associate myself with this organisation. I would find life very hard without it."

While Kargbo and Fornah lost their legs to a landmine and a gunshot wound respectively, Jabati Mambu, the club's president, fell victim to the rebels' wartime tactics of targeted mutilation. The members of the Revolutionary United Front were notorious for conducting campaigns of mass rape and mutilation and for recruiting young boys, then forcing them to kill their own family members as a kind of initiation ritual.

Mambu's right hand was cut off during a rebel attack in 1999 at the height of the civil war.

"I was just 14 when my own amputation happened," he tells me, before wearily raising his badly scarred left arm. "They tried to cut off my other hand, but they didn't succeed."

Despite the organisation's many successes, all is not well in Freetown. Samai, the club's coordinator, says that although three former students and soccer players have been able to go to college thanks to the club's efforts, its future is in doubt, thanks to a lack of consistent funding, especially from central government.

"Most of the players' lives would have been desperate without football as an outlet for their frustrations, but I can't help be disappointed by the government's failure to include this unique sport in the bigger arena," he says.

"The government spends a lot of money on able-bodied football, but the amputee national team couldn't go to the world championship in Argentina earlier this year because we couldn't raise enough money to fund the trip."

The club needed to raise $70,000 (Dh257,000) to fund the journey, but were only able to generate $18,000 (Dh66,000) in donations.

"We approached the president. He went to the media to appeal to the public to give money, but nobody came forward. We had a press conference some weeks ago where we expressed our dissatisfaction in the way that disabled people - amputees especially - are treated in this country." In a place where the lot of able-bodied men and women is already hard, the life of the amputee, or "cut-men" as they are sometimes cruelly referred to, is worse.

As training draws to a close and Coach Shariff blows the final whistle, the sparse crowd that litters the touchline begins to dissolve. Among that crowd is Eto'o (real name Sahr Lamain), a club stalwart who has been nicknamed in honour of Samuel Eto'o, the Inter Milan and Cameroonian striker who will soon grace the pitch of Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Eto'o wears a dejected look as he follows the rest of the players back towards the changing area.

"'Eto'o' is injured, and he can't play. He needs medical care, he badly needs a scan," says one player matter-of-factly, no doubt aware that, in a country where the average man has a life expectancy of just 46 years, such treatment is not within the nation's power to give.

Eto'o, unlike his more celebrated namesake, is unlikely to take to the field again. Ironically, where sport had briefly offered him redemption it has now brought him another misfortune. The physical demands of competitive football have wreaked havoc on his standing leg. He will now need extensive rehabilitation to restore him to fitness and ease the pain of his existence off the pitch. Indeed, it seems as if the game, which has brought him so much in the way of pleasure, has now caused him further suffering.

Such adversity aside, the men of the club, who make up just a fraction of the estimated 6,000 war amputees nationwide in Sierra Leone, have ambitions that stretch far beyond the shores of Freetown.

Fornah is one such player. He refuses to let the hardship of life in his homeland get in the way of his own dreams for sporting glory.

"I want to play for a European team," he says, adding that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of his all-time footballing heroes. "I'd like to play for Real Madrid."

He stops and smiles. "In the amputee team, of course."

Alasdair Soussi, a regular contributor to The Review, is a journalist based in Beirut and Cairo, he is writing a book titled Lebanon: A Land of Consequences.