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Sierra Leone

IX. Freetown:
Among the Wounded

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

Some of Freetown's amputees live
in a village of blue and white canvas shacks,


Victims Gallery  
Rebels Gallery  
The Abduction of Helen
A Borderless World
In Mosquito Country
At the Crossroads
The Best Intentions
"We've come to see you..."
Toward Politics
Meanings of Sierra Leone
Among the Wounded

not far from the center of town. The "Medecins Sans Frontieres Amputee and War Wounded Camp," as it calls itself on a sign scrawled near a busy road, holds 371 registered amputees and their families. Drainage ditches run among rows of tacked-together homes supplied by a patchwork of foreign charities. A primary school assembles each morning under an open thatched-roof gazebo. Up the slope, men are raising felled tree limbs to construct a new mosque.

It is an eerie, nervous time in Freetown. An uncertain peace has held just long enough that some rebels are beginning to drift out of the bush and back into the capital, looking for jobs or friends or just a break from sleeping on the ground. Sierra Leone is small enough and frightened enough that people keep track of strangers in their midst, and sometimes a neighborhood can identify returning rebels just as soon as they shuffle up the road. Then questions of justice and equity and international law acquire an immediacy not often felt in The Hague. Some of the returnees have been lynched or burned alive. More often the streets ring out with shouts or threats or spontaneous debates.

The appetite for peace runs so deep and so broad in Sierra Leone that it smothers all else. Even some who have been badly abused by the rebels are prepared to accept them into politics if it truly means peace. Ask about justice, and you hear about its impossibility—no one can imagine how you could give evidence safely. The rebels are ministers now, they drive around town in new cars with sirens and armed escorts. They can snap their fingers and come and take you in the night. Who is going to testify against them? Such doubts flow from an accurate reading by ordinary Sierra Leoneans of their own powerlessness.

amputee camp
The Medecins Sans Frontieres Amputee and War Wounded Camp is a haven for the wounded and their families.
In the voices of the wounded pulses an impressive effort to close off the past. To do so requires a resilience that no outsider can readily imagine. Listening and listening, you begin to feel that the survivors of such an invasion map not only a random distribution of luck, but also a selection of a certain kind of emotional muscle.

And yet there are those who atrophy, even now, even in the snug village of blue and white canvas shacks, where Alpha and Amadu Jalloh, two brothers with two complementary arms, share a room behind a flap and drift off to town most days to hustle and trade in a loose network of shops run by their diminished family.

It is Alpha everybody worries about. He sickens easily, he won't often leave the amputees' camp. You walk with him around town and you discover that when a 22-year-old with girlfriends and gold watches and a reputation in the neighborhood has his arm chopped off while lying face down in the road, he loses something other than a useful limb. He becomes a spectacle, a source of political meaning, an object of pity, an object of disgust.

"Look at what the bastards did!" onlookers call out in anger as we walk along the road where the rebels had escorted him the year before.

Alpha is staring at the eroded red clay.

"Right now, walking with you, I feel ashamed," he tells me. "I have no fitness. They are pitying me."

Alpha Jalloh doubles over in pain while his brother Amudu looks on.
They are, of course. If he sits in the cashier's chair at his sister-in-law's vegetable stall, customers will simply walk up to him and hand him money—not for vegetables, but for him. It infuriates him.

"I would rather have died than be living like this," he says softly.

We reach the school gate where Tommy stood a year earlier. Alpha points out the spots where the line formed, where the boys lay down, where the axe fell.

He doubles over. He is not feeling well. We need to go back down the hill. We need to take him to the doctor.

"My arm hurts," Alpha says.

Steve Coll, managing editor of the Washington Post, and Post photography editor Michel duCille fielded questions and comments about this article. Read the transcript.

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