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Sierra Leone amputees in a league of their own

Injuries sustained in civil war haven't kept soccer players off field

By Jeff Koinange
CNN

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news around the world.

Soccer game
Members of the Sierra Leone Single Leg Amputee Sports Club play a match by the Atlantic Ocean.

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- It's 8 a.m., and a soccer game is under way on a makeshift field by the exotic beaches of Sierra Leone, along the Atlantic Ocean.

But it's no ordinary soccer game, for every one of the players on the six-a-side practice session is missing a leg or an arm or both.

They're all amputees, victims of the West African country's brutal decadelong civil war that cost up to 50,000 lives and left a nation of armless and legless victims. The conflict ended in 2002, but so many people are missing limbs that there is a full-fledged national soccer league for amputees. It has about a dozen teams, with legless field players and handless goalies.

Players struggle as they hobble on crutches and fight for ball possession. But some, such as 19-year-old Amadu Kamara, show amazing dexterity when it comes to ball and body control. Then again, he should.

Kamara was a budding high school soccer star when the civil war was at its height. One day, when fleeing from the rebels, a bullet hit him in the thigh. He was found three days later by government troops who took him to a local hospital.

Doctors didn't have the equipment or drugs to treat him and decided to amputate his leg, cutting short his career. He lay depressed for two months.

Seven years later, he's on the beach on crutches, maneuvering his way past other players while dribbling the ball.

"The civil war was terrible," Kamara says. "It's reduced us to a nation of beggars ... one-armed and one-legged beggars."

He is referring to the thousands of amputees who've made this country's busy thoroughfares their homes, begging for alms from sympathetic motorists and passers-by.

Many lost limbs

One of those amputees is Suleiman Sesay, who says he vividly remembers the day the rebels invaded his city.

Sesay says they rounded up him and other teens and took them to their stronghold, miles away. They were given chores -- collecting firewood, fetching water, cooking and cleaning. They worked for days on end with little food.

One day, Sesay says, he and his friends refused to do a chore, so the rebels decided to make examples of them. The rebels took them outside and in front of everyone grabbed axes and machetes and started hacking at their limbs.

"They gave us a choice," he says. " 'Do you want short sleeves or long sleeves?' "

He says he didn't know what the question meant and even thought it was a joke. He took a gamble and said short sleeves.

"They chopped my arm at the elbow," he says. "Six swings and my arm came off."

His friend Ali had chosen long sleeves, and his hand was hacked at the wrist. And on it went until all 12 teens had their limbs severed.

"My other friend, Mohammed, a very good soccer player, had his leg chopped off," Sesay says. "The rebels said they'd done it deliberately so he could never play again. Mohammed bled to death some hours later."

Some blame Taylor

Abu Sesay (unrelated to Suleiman) was 2 months old when the rebel onslaught came to his village. His father took off with Abu on his back. The rebels' bullets cut short his run. They shattered Abu's leg and killed his father instantly.

Abu was tossed into the bushes and discovered two days later. By that time, gangrene had set in, and his leg had to be amputated.

Seven years later, Abu sits by the step of his mother's house watching his siblings play. Kadiatu Sesay says she wishes her son could be a normal kid like her other children.

"I can't even afford to pay school fees or indeed feed my children, let alone buy Abu a prosthesis."

I ask Abu if he's ever heard of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, a neighboring country. Taylor sits in a jailhouse here in Freetown.

Taylor is accused of countless atrocities in Sierra Leone, including aiding the rebel movement that spurred this nation's civil war and hacked off the limbs of many of its people. Taylor stands accused by a Sierra Leone special court of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty.

Merely 7, Abu knows about Taylor and has a definite opinion of him: "I wish I could use a bullet on him the same way one was used on me. I've never met Charles Taylor, but I know he's a bad man."

As I watch the amputees play soccer by the Atlantic, my thoughts turn to Taylor and his alleged victims. This isn't the way soccer was meant to be played, but don't tell that to these incredibly determined young men.

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