In Liberia, rebuilding after decades of devastating civil war, the country's first national amputee soccer team is now competing on an international level, and bringing new hope to the war torn country. The squad is one of four African teams in the World Amputee Football Federation, which also includes Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Though new, the Liberian team is hoping for victory as it prepares for the world championships in Russia. Naomi Schwarz has this story from Dakar, with player interviews from reporter Prince Collins, who attended practice.
On a soccer field not far from the president's residence in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, the team is working hard to sharpen its skills.
Samuel Eastman, twenty-six-years old, is a striker, and the team's secretary-general.
"As you can see the training is very much in place. And from this training, we are sure we are going to be impacting our game in Russia," he said.
Eastman's team will travel to Russia in June, competing in the world championships for amputees. In February they competed in the African
amputee football championships, organized in part by the international football federation, known as FIFA.
Eastman lost a leg over a decade ago, when he was eleven years old.
"One of my cousins was that was working the same day the plane did the bombing, he went to go see what had really happened. And I followed him. Before I could get closer to him, unfortunately this bomb went off. I did not see the terrible bomb, I just heard it blasting there. I was affected," he said.
Every player on the team lost a limb during Liberia's civil war. Indeed, across West Africa, where recent decades saw many brutal wars, there are thousands of amputees. And in several countries, including Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria, there are now national teams of amputees, competing on an international level.
Eastman says he has not let his injury, or the war, hold him back.
"At that time I was just in the seventh grade. I managed to go to high school. I went to college. I did my diploma in accounting. Amputation has not stopped me," he said.
Eastman has two children but no job. More than three-quarters of Liberians are unemployed. But he says he is hopeful. In the meantime, he is training hard with his teammates.
"Some people played football before they became amputated. Some people, they had never. However, as the training goes, I mean you get adjusted and you begin to play. I mean, it is just the own mind, and willingness to help yourself," said Eastman.
Coach Paul Alex Tolbert says he has adapted his coaching techniques to his team's special needs.
"Most of them were actually traumatized. And their response to treatment is to be actually negative. Some of their emotions are very high and their way of understanding is very low. And so in many instances I, as a coach, have to be very moderate," he said.
But he says he does not go easy on the guys.
Navarro M. Saykai, director of the country's Youth and Sports Authority, says soccer teams like this one are an important component in the effort to rebuild.
"We have a mandate as a government, and we have a social responsibility to the youth of this country. We have to open the corridor to bring them in, to make sure they fit in the society," he said.
Spectators, including Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, drop by frequently, to watch the team practice.
Dennis Parker, another striker, says fans better get their fill now, because, he says, sooner or later the team will be traveling far and wide for regional and world tournaments.