Interview with Mohamed Sesay, Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope (ELoH) beneficiary in Sierra Leone
17th June 2012, Freetown, Sierra Leone
“As long as there is life, there is hope.” This phrase has not left me since my conversation earlier today with Mohamed Sesay, 18-year old amputee beneficiary of Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope (ELoH) in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Mohamed’s story involves more suffering than any human being should ever have to endure. But, echoing ELoH’s very motto, it is also a story of strength, courage and deep-rooted determination to see light and goodness, even from one of the darkest experiences possible. Mohamed – or Balotelli, as he affectionately likes to be called (after his favourite footballer) – is an inspiration to us all, and someone who ELoH is proud to be supporting so that he can have an even brighter future.
Mohamed said he wanted to tell me his story, and for me to tell others, so that the ELOH team and our supporters understand what he has been through – and so that he can be treated as an equal in society, with the respect he deserves.
Mohamed lost his leg as a young child during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war (1991-2002). “I was five years old,” he said, “with my family in Lunsar (east of the capital Freetown) and suddenly everyone was running and screaming. This was the first time I knew it was a war.”
“As everyone was running, I lost my family in the crowds, and tried to jump into a bush to hide. I was all alone and looked for a small hiding place, but the rebels soon found me by a bush under a tree – and that was where they captured me. There were a few other children nearby too, and the rebels were beating us and threatening us by saying that if we did not carry heavy loads on our heads, they would shoot us. I was crying and crying.”
I asked Mohamed what happened next. ”The rebels then took about 500 of us (all children) away into another hiding place. They made us watch them lifting adults and children up and dumping them into casks of boiling water. People were dying and burning to death.”
“Then they took me and four of my friends to another place. Along the way we saw forearms, feet, ears, heads and hands everywhere along the road; we knew they were going to amputate our limbs.”
“At first they were going to amputate my arm. The only thing they said to me was ‘do you want a long arm or a short arm?’” He indicated, showing that the rebels gave him a choice between amputation either above or below his left elbow.
“I was fighting and struggling and they could not cut my arm – they only left this.” Mohamed lifted his sleeve and showed a large scar at the top of his arm, an indelible mark of the rebels’ failed attempt to sever his upper limb. ”So they had to stop and reconsider what to do with me.”
Mohamed then explained how the rebels decided to clamp his right leg into a wooden brace and, with a cutlass, hacked off his limb in several places just below the knee. They did the job so messily that the amputated section was still partly attached. ”When they finished, some men took us far away and I was left somewhere above the woods. I didn’t know what happened to anyone – my friends or my parents – I was all alone. All I knew was that I was alive, but I was on my own for two days.”
Eventually the Red Cross found him and took him in a truck to the Government hospital in Freetown, where they treated the amputation properly and helped it to heal. All alone, Mohamed had no-where to stay and no-one to go to. Since then, he has been living alone on the streets in Freetown. We did not continue at this point, such was the pain in recalling the loneliness and isolation endured for such a long time.
Mohamed’s life started to get brighter in 2008, when he chanced upon a meeting with the head of the Sierra Leone Amputee Sports Club (SLAS). “I have always loved football and played in the streets a lot with other two-legged people. Wizzi (the head of the club) asked me what I was doing hanging around outside the club and then gave me 10,000 Leones (about £1.50) and told me to go down to the beach on Saturday to see how the club plays and whether I might be interested in joining.”
I asked him how he felt when he saw the team playing. “I saw these were my brothers. In Sierra Leone if you are nothing people will never see you as somebody – they will not see you as equal. But these are my colleagues and I felt happy seeing them.”
It didn’t take long for Mohamed’s talent to be recognised and the coach sent people looking for him on the streets to invite him to be part of the team. “They found it hard to find me because I don’t have a base so I’m always moving around, but when they saw me they said ‘now we want you to come to a match’.”
By November 2011, Mohamed was representing the country on an international level, and travelled to Ghana with the Sierra Leone amputee football team to compete in the African National Cup for Amputees against 5 other nations. His was the winning team, and Mohamed was also awarded man of the match. ”I have had hope since I joined the football team because they take care of me and are like my family. I spend a lot of time with them.”
But Mohamed’s real ambition is to complete his education so that he can have a career and help others. In 2002 he met a gentleman from the UN who sponsored his primary education until 2006; but since then has had no education and is desperate to go to secondary school. “If I have a shelter and go to school I know I will have a future because my dream is to be a doctor so that I can help people. I know other people still have no legs, and if I am a doctor I can help them.” This is something ELoH will help make possible.
Mohamed was identified as an ELoH beneficiary this January 2012. “My friend Fenty (who is also a beneficiary) met Michael (one of our social workers) in east Freetown. When Fenty had been registered, he told me ‘I have found you a project, you need to go there on Monday.’ So I went and met Mr Michael and we shared some ideas, I told him my story and he asked me some questions.”
I explained how over the next year, ELoH, through our partners on the ground (Street Child of Sierra Leone and Action for the Rights of Children), will work with Mohamed to give him a prosthetic fitting and address his educational and housing needs. He said: “This is an opportunity in life for me; God is ready to make it up to me this time. I have so much hope from what I have heard about the programme and now I know that one day I will make it.”
Mohamed was especially inspired by fellow amputee Pollyanna Hope (daughter and niece of ELoH’s founders) who he met at the project’s launch event a couple of weeks previously. I told him about Pollyanna’s fantastic achievement at Sierra Leone’s first ever marathon event, organised by our partner Street Child of Sierra Leone. She ran the full five kilometre race with her crutches and prosthetic leg, without stopping. Mohamed’s response captured exactly what we are striving to deliver for all of our beneficiaries: “when she grows up, no one will know that she has a problem.”
Rebecca Newsom, Chair of Trustees, Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope (ELoH)