Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated the year Damba Koroma arrived in the United States from Sierra Leone. It was 2000, not 2002.
A Broadcast of War's Brutality
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
On Monday morning, the two young women anchoring Francis C. Hammond Middle School's daily televised news show chirpily announced an upcoming roller skating party, a talent show and a book club event.
Then one of the anchors, a bright-eyed Sierra Leonian immigrant named Damba Koroma, gave a nervous giggle and showed her fellow students, watching from classrooms throughout the Alexandria school, a video of herself that explained why she doesn't have a left hand.
"In August of 1998, war came to my village and ended my peaceful and normal life," said Damba, 13, who in the video was wearing a tank top that bared her arms. She explained that rebels set homes on fire and then attacked the villagers, killing those they accused of collaborating with the government and raping women and young girls.
They gathered the villagers under a tree and selected Damba, then 5, to make an example of. The rebel leader pushed her to the ground. "I could not hold the fear in me," she said. "I was cold and terrified. He landed his machete on my left arm. I felt a sharp pain running through my entire body. I was overwhelmed, and my whole body was shaking."
Dressed now as an anchor in a purple striped T-shirt, white skirt and pearls, Damba stared down as the video ran. At times her right hand, with its impeccably polished pink fingernails, reached unconsciously to cradle the stump of her left forearm.
"When my mother asked if she could pick me up and tie my bleeding arm, the same rebel who had cut off my arm ordered her to lay by me, and he cut off my mother's left arm." After several days, the two made it to a hospital. The video showed a photo of them, smiling on a bed together, left arms swathed in identical bandages.
After the broadcast, Damba's fellow anchor, Tamika Jones, 14, asked her schoolmates to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Tamika was supposed to smile when she announced it. But she just couldn't.
Behind the cameras, in the darkened broadcasting room, students sniffled.
"I was about to cry," said Farishta Boura, 15, adding that she had never known why Damba was missing a hand. "I never asked her. It would be kind of mean, you know; it would be rude."
"It must be really hard to say that," added Amina Kaabi, 13.
Tens of thousands of people in Sierra Leone died or were mutilated during a decade-long war that began in 1990 as rebels fought to control the country's diamond mines. After living in refugee camps for several years, Damba was among a group of children brought to the United States to be fitted for prosthetics in 2000. She was taken in a few months later by a Sierra Leonian family in Alexandria that plans to adopt her.
Students at Hammond are used to seeing Damba a girl who sings alto in the choir, who acts in school plays, who aces her courses. Most of them are at an age where any blemish, any fashion mistake, can cause paroxysms of horror. But not many asked why Damba looked the way she did. Some thought she simply had been born that way.