Thirty-five wheelchairs, donated by a Connecticut-based U.S. non-governmental organization, are on their way to Sierra Leone. The target recipients are amputees who were wounded during that country's 10-year civil war.
For the third year in a row, Sierra Leone has ended up at the bottom of the United Nations Development Program's list of living conditions in 173 countries around the world. But as the country begins to recover from war, U.S.-based groups like Chariots of Hope are working to try to bring relief. The organization's executive director Ken Messier says the all-volunteer group collects donated and used wheelchairs, repairs them and ships them to less-developed countries.
"This is our first project in Sierra Leone," he said. "We shipped a little over 30 chairs the first time. We plan to ship 100 wheelchairs there. The balance of that 100 will be shipped sometime during 2003."
He says he is optimistic the wheelchair distribution will go well. "The unsettled atmosphere in Sierra Leone doesn't really impact us. We're just trying to get wheelchairs to those who need them," he said.
Chariots of Hope started in 1998, when just one wheelchair was donated to a user in South Africa. In 2002, the group gave away about 200 chairs.
Mr. Messier says the wheelchairs are donated mostly by residents in the northeastern United States. He says most of them are then shipped overseas, to countries like Bulgaria, Haiti, Peru, South Africa and Tanzania.
He says people who want to receive the donated wheelchairs must apply to Chariots of Hope and provide photographic proof that the donations go where they were intended.
"Well, the requirement that we have for each of the countries is that the distributing organization take pictures of who is getting the chair, and give us a little bit of information about who received the chair on the other end," he said.
The batch of wheelchairs going to Sierra Leone is being taken by VOA Broadcast Engineer, Sulaiaman Tarawaley, who came to the United States from that country 22 years ago. An agreement he signed with Chariots of Hope makes him responsible for shipping the wheelchairs to Freetown and distributing them to Sierra Leoneans who need them.
Mr. Tarawaley says he became inspired to help war amputees when he visited Sierra Leone several years ago as a VOA journalist, and saw for himself the suffering left from that country's civil war.
"I decided that as an individual, I was going to come back here to the United States to make a difference to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the people," he said.
There are 104 people at Sierra Leone's only amputee camp, the Murraytown Amputee Camp, in Freetown.
Camp manager Abdul Kareem Bangura, or Budou, as everyone calls him, says about 40 people at the Murraytown Camp are missing either one or both legs. He says the ones who are only missing one leg cannot even use crutches because the remaining leg is so badly damaged.
"So, this is why we are applying for wheelchairs for them. Because they cannot move around like the others are doing since little or nothing is being done to address their social problems. They used to go out to the streets to beg, and now these other ones cannot because, I mean, the other foot there is not okay," he said.
Mr. Tarawaley says he feels all Sierra Leoneans bear guilt for destroying the country, and so it is up to all Sierra Leoneans to rebuild it. "And I hope that this venture of mine will get other Sierra Leoneans living overseas to emulate this type of example, that we can make a difference as individuals. Because you see, in developing countries, we only think that it's the government that's supposed to do things," he said.
Mr. Tarawaley says he feels lucky to be an American. And, even though he is now a U.S. citizen, he still wants to help his native country any way he can. He says this shipment of wheelchairs from the Connecticut-based Chariots of Hope is just the beginning.