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Sierra Leone's War Amputees Angrily Await Reparations

War amputees in Sierra Leone are complaining of their treatment and of a stalled reparation program, nearly seven years since the end of the country's brutal civil war. Human rights activists say amputees are being ostracized, but the government says it is working hard to make sure the reparation program is a success.

In the town of Makeni, an amputee argues on his cell phone with a local government official about an invasion by cattle herders into a field he owns.

Next to him, another war amputee, Siah Mansaray, says amputees get no respect.

"We are suffering. We are begging in the streets. We have the energy in our bodies, but we do not have the hands to do the work, so we appeal to the government," he said.

Amputees are angry a long-awaited government reparation program has yet to start.

Mansaray explains they are also harassed by former rebels.

"Too much delay is dangerous. Too much delay is dangerous. Some people, they provoke the amputees," he said.

A Sierra Leonean journalist explains what Mansaray goes on to say in the Krio language.

"He is saying that some of the ex-combatants who committed these crimes are still provoking them, while they are suffering and then the people are not doing anything for that. And, he warned strictly that if they do not stop, maybe they will cause another chaos," said the journalist. "They are saying that we chopped your hands off and we are still walking like you people in the streets. Nobody asks us."

One of the many children in the courtyard here is doing laundry, rather than going to school.

The families of 14 amputees live here, in houses built during the post-war resettlement program.

Sokoya Kargbo, 52, has 12 children. He used to be a farmer, but his right arm was cut off by rebels in 1998.

He says he has been promised help to send his children to school. He says former combatants got money and job training during the disarmament program, which is more than what he got.

Government officials say the reparations program has more than $3 million to work with, and the initial plan is to make sure all war amputees get housing. Officials say that out of 960 amputee and severely war-wounded people registered nationally, 500 have already been provided with housing.

These houses are usually bunched together in settlements outside towns, like here in Makeni. This is unfortunate according to human-rights activist Gibril Massie Bah.

"If they had been supported in their original homes, they would have been easily and naturally reintegrated into society. But because of the design of the project, they have been separated from the rest of the communities and there the stigma will still continue with them," said Bah.

Bah from the Center for Democracy and Human Rights wants the families of war amputees to get government support for health benefits and school tuition.

The government official in charge of the reparation program in the north, Sainku Fofanah dismisses criticism of his work.

"The amputees they are saying that much has not been done for them and they are expecting more. But the government is trying by all possible means to put modalities in place on how to address the issues of the amputees. So I would not say they have not been sensitized, but that an angry man is all the time looking out for something more and more, asking for more and more," Fofanah said.

He says the bigger the body part hacked off, the bigger the compensation award the amputee will receive. Some victims, Fofanah says, had their tongue or ear hacked off, and will receive less money than those who had an arm or leg hacked off.

During the decade-long war, rebels and pro-government militia hacked off body parts of civilian victims as a warning to other survivors.

Fofanah says amputee victims will also be given ID cards that will give them free access to government hospitals and transport.

Fofanah says war victims of sexual violence also need help, and he is asking for patience.

"Sierra Leoneans are very committed. If you can only recall again that during the time of war, the DDR [disarmament demobilization repatriation] program, it was a success story. I do believe that the reparation is also going to be a success story. The program right now, that I am talking to you, it is on course," he added.

One of the challenges is to differentiate between war amputees and amputees from before the war, who are trying to get the new benefits. Some of these include people accused of being thieves, who had their limbs chopped off for stealing.

Nonetheless, human rights activist Bah says it is very important for the program to start quickly, so some of the nightmares of war victims can be alleviated.

"If they are supported and well taken care of, they will not think a lot about what has happened to them, but when isolated, when not supported, then the pain will come at any time in their minds. They will still continue to think about the bad old days," said Bah.

One amputee said when he looks down at his missing arm, he sometimes believes it also represents the help he is receiving, he says, just like a void.