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Sierra Leone War Amputees Vote With Toes to Usher In New Peace Era - 2002-05-15

People in Sierra Leone are waiting for results of the first presidential and legislative elections to be held in the country since the end of a brutal, 10-year civil war. Voting was carried out in an overall atmosphere of calm. Voter turnout was high.

The vote counting began immediately after the polls closed Tuesday. Early results from individual polling stations throughout Sierra Leone were read over radio stations almost immediately after the balloting ended.

In Freetown, residents gathered around radios, cheering each time returns showed their candidate of choice in the lead.

The enthusiasm had been visible earlier Tuesday at the polls, where thousands lined up in the pre-dawn hours to cast their ballots.

Many Sierra Leoneans say they believe this election may mark a turning point in their country's history.

One voter, Freetown office worker Princess Njavombo, 40, says she remembers voting under a one-party system that existed before the war. She said that during the war, voters were subject to intimidation by both soldiers and rebels. In some cases, she says, people had their limbs cut off for voting for the wrong party. Mrs. Njavombo says Tuesday was the first time she has ever voted without fear.

"For the past 11 years, we have been in the dark ages. We didn't have a right to come out," she said. "We've been afraid of guns. Guns all over the country. But now that we are here today, I feel extremely happy that we have gone [out of] the dark ages."

The voting on Tuesday took place amid an atmosphere of calm. There were, however, some reports of irregularities that included one from observers who said children under the age of 18 had been spotted casting ballots illegally at polling stations in the interior of the country.

U.N. officials on Tuesday said election day had gone generally smoothly, and all voting materials had been delivered to polling stations on time.

The presidential ballot included eight men and one woman. Observers favored incumbent President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to win reelection.

Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war which was declared officially over in January, received international attention because of the extent of atrocities committed by rebel fighters against civilians.

On Tuesday, victims whose limbs were amputated by rebels turned out to vote in high numbers. Special provisions were made so that people who are missing their hands could vote using their toes.

Lamin Jusu Jarka had his two hands cut off by rebels when they invaded Freetown in January of 2000. On Tuesday, he stamped his toeprint on a ballot. He told VOA he wishes that instead of using the gun or the machete, rebels should have used the ballot box to bring about change in Sierra Leone.

"I feel that should have been the foremost thing they should have done in the past years. Before coming to amputate people, they should have gone through the democratic process. That is fair enough. That could have been a better choice for them than to come to butcher the people of this country."

The voting took place amid tight security, with Sierra Leonean police and United Nations peacekeepers guarding the polls.

Final results from Tuesday's election are expected sometime before Friday.