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Christmas appeal: Out in the bush with a bullet in her brain

Tenneh walked 150 miles through Sierra Leone to flee the civil war. Now, at last, her life is improving
Nine-year-old Tenneh Cole, the war orphan from Sierra Leone whom the world's media once called "a walking miracle", is getting her life back together. After surviving a bullet in the brain and being brought to Britain for a life-saving operation, she came to symbolise the horror and the hope of her embattled West African homeland. Now, three years on, she enjoys the love and affection of the first real family she has known since a desperate and savage conflict almost took her life.

Tenneh - the name means "God will provide" - remains a celebrated figure in a land where the threat of death or mutilation has never been far away during its long years of civil war.

Her life was thrown into turmoil when anti-government rebels attacked her village in 1996, slaughtering her parents and sending her on a desperate flight, alone, into the bush. She was just five years old.

There she was picked up by another fleeing young couple who assumed her bleeding head wound had been caused by a thrown rock or stick and was not very serious.

After walking 150 miles through rebel-occupied territory, the trio finally arrived in the capital, Freetown, and spent a year battling for survival against the twin terrors of disease and starvation.

It was then that Tenneh's incredible story emerged. Complaining of headaches and suffering deafness and speech impairment, she was taken for a skull X-ray in the city hospital where the unexpected shape of a bullet from a Kalashnikov emerged on the film.

Charity workers took up her case with Caroline Cook, co-founder of Hope and Homes for Children which was already working to establish a home for children like Tenneh in Makeni, north of the capital.

Caroline knew that I had previously been able to arrange medical treatment in the UK for Bosnian children and called me at the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich, where I work, to ask if I could help. Soon afterwards we were travelling to Freetown with Mark, Caroline's husband and the charity's co-founder, on a journey that was to bring Tenneh to Norfolk for surgery.

It was there that doctors removed the bullet which, apparently, had been tumbling back to earth when it punched into the top of her skull, tore through the right frontal lobe of her brain and came to rest behind her right eye. Under the spotlight of the world's press, Tenneh appeared a bewildered and frightened figure, a tiny girl who had difficulty understanding the culture and the attention that had suddenly sur- rounded her. But my family came to know her as a self-willed fighter who had borne the tribulations of her short life only by dogged determination.

When I took her back to Sierra Leone, she was soon to find herself in the spacious new home created by Mark and Caroline Cook, where she was looking forward to a new life among scores of children just like herself.

Then the terror returned. Rebels attacked Makeni and the home twice, causing the children to flee for their lives into the bush, where their local helpers kept them hidden amid the killing, maiming and raping that continued around them.

Last spring, the children were taken north to the border with Guinea, where they have remained in a small hamlet of mud huts, living behind rebel lines with food and supplies being smuggled in by courageous local workers, funded regularly by donations from Hope and Homes for Children.

Eighty-four orphans have stayed there for nine months, waiting for the day, in the next few weeks, when the latest peace accord will allow them to return to the Makeni home which the rebels occupied.

Tenneh, however, is not with them. During the last rebel attack she was in Freetown receiving medical treatment and being cared for by a local charity worker, Dr Roland Kargbo, and his family.

In January she endured the terror of the rebel occupation of the capital, hiding under a bed at the family home for several days while the fighting raged all around. But peace has brought her new hope again.

For Tenneh, the one-time lost girl in the wilderness, life is now filled with the care and affection of the Kargbos. After the unspeakable cruelties of her country's civil war, her story has at last begun to take a turn for the better.