Postwar Amputees Are Kicking Up Strength and Spirit in Sierra Leone
As Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war rippled across his home country in 1998, then-13-year-old Mohamed Jalloh and his family were among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee from their homes. Seeking cover in the bush outside their village, they attempted to wait out the conflict—one that would leave 50,000 dead.
But in the coming years, conditions worsened, and soon Jalloh’s family was starving. When his parents asked him and his siblings to return to the village to find food, he didn't expect the trip to completely alter his life.
“We had to climb over a fallen tree in the road,” Jalloh, now 29, wrote in a personal account. “Everyone climbed over it without a problem, but when I was climbing over, I heard an explosion and this scared me.”
Afraid the rebels were mounting an attack, Jalloh hid in a neighboring forest, where he stepped on a land mine that blew his leg off.
“I was able to run on my stump for ten or more kilometers before I could no longer run and the pain became overwhelming,” he wrote. But he refused to die alone in the bush. “I crawled for many more miles. After three days, I found my way to a house.”
Jalloh was 15 at the time.
Many others have had Jalloh's harrowing experience. During the conflict, 4,000 to 10,000 people suffered “intentional” amputations—essentially, having their hands, legs, ears, feet, fingers, or arms cut off by armed forces; thousands more became “unintentional” amputees via injury, including gunshot wounds or land mines, during the conflict. As a result, thousands of disabled Sierra Leoneans found it difficult to work, attend school, or live a normal life after the war.
Tired of being marginalized and not wanting to panhandle for food or money, Jalloh and a group of other wartime amputees founded the Salone Flying Stars, a soccer club they hoped would encourage camraderie and empower them to live life with a positive outlook.
“After the war it was very, very difficult for the amputees in Sierra Leone,” Jalloh, the coordinator and vice president of the team, tells TakePart via telephone from the country's capital, Freetown. “Being an amputee is really not easy. In Sierra Leone, people with two legs and two arms find it difficult to make a living, so for someone who lost a leg or an arm, it’s a much more difficult situation.”
Around 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans live in poverty, according to the United Nations Development Programme, and “only 29.6 percent of adults with severe or very severe disabilities are working, compared with 56.1 percent of adults with mild or moderate disabilities and 60.4 percent of non-disabled adults,” reports the Leonard Cheshire Disability Review.
The Flying Stars, which is composed of both unintentional and intentional amputees, works to help its members feel more confident about their lives and has also begun to shift the perception of disabled people in Sierra Leone.
“We use football as an instrument which can move our mind from frustration and from begging from the streets,” Jalloh says. “Also, it has changed how people feel and think about us. That’s why we formed this [club].”
“When we train you see people stand and watch us just because some people have never seen a one-legged person play football,” he continues. “It’s really not easy, but people are admiring us. When we go into any community everybody runs and comes to watch us.”
So far, the Flying Stars have formed four teams around Sierra Leone and hope to start a league to provide more opportunities to amputees, but it has limited resources to make it happen. Funding has come from various local and international groups—publicity also came in the form of a 2011 documentary on the group—but Jalloh said the club continues to struggle for basic equipment such as soccer cleats, gloves, and crutches.
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It’s not just about football for Jalloh and the Flying Stars. When he’s not playing with the club, he and others are advocating for more rights for disabled people and encouraging younger amputees to focus on their education.
“We encourage them to play football, but we don’t want to take their mind off of education,” he explains, noting there are two teenage members on the team. “Unfortunately, we haven’t furthered our education, so we want to see the young amputees take advantage of educational opportunities.”
Still, Jalloh knows that in the meantime, the club plays a vital role in the lives of amputees.
“It moves our mind and gives us hope,” he says. “Whenever people stand and watch us we think it’s very important to the nation.”
This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.