Civil war turns a nation's youth into generation of the brutalised

ADAMASAY KAMARA, 14, was out in the bush gathering fruit when the rebels came to her village near Port Loko, Sierra Leone, in May. Until that day she had only heard stories about the almost unbelievable atrocities they had committed - raping girls, cutting their limbs, drugging them, handing them guns to kill their parents...

That day she lived the nightmare that in the past eight years has devastated thousands of children's lives in the diamond-rich West African country. "As we were walking back to Magboru, our village, we could see that the rebels were there. So we ran away.

"But another group found us. They had uniforms and they said they were Ecomog (West African peace-keepers) so we thought we were safe. They tied our hands behind our backs and led us to Magboru,'' she said.

Later that day in Magboru, Adamasay's hands were cut off by machete. Her village burnt down, she now lives with surviving members of her family and other "useless" people, as the amputees call themselves, at Murray Town refugee camp in the capital, Freetown. It is a place that could be full of hope, with its new plastic tarpaulins cladding neat wood structures in tidy rows, and a prosthesis workshop. About 300 adults and children live here - amputees and their families waiting for a future to present itself.

They rarely go out on to the main road that passes their camp, perhaps for fear of the reactions of the able-bodied. In truth, it is hard to see how these war victims - mainly rural farmers who used to live by their hands - can have any hope.

Adamasay was with her sister, Mariatu, 13, when the rebels came to Magboru. "In the village, which had eight houses, there was shouting and screaming all day. The rebels wanted food. They shot many men. They forced the women and the old people into the huts, then burnt them down.

"For some reason they chose two men and the two of us to watch it all. We thought we were going to be taken away as prisoners.

"But they changed their minds. In the afternoon, after they had put black powder into our mouths which made us light-headed, they led the two men and me to the cotton tree. This is where they cut our hands, against the tree trunk. At the same time they led Mariatu away, and they used [raped] her," said Adamasay, her stumps resting pathetically on her lap.

The left stump has healed, clean, where her wrist used to be. Her right stump, which includes the knuckle of her thumb, is painted with a purple antiseptic. It was not a clean cut and has given her much pain.

Murray Town is full of lost looks - amputated children who cannot play as they used to and even need to be lifted up if they are to sit on a fence.

With them are adults who cannot dress or eat and do not have hands to beg. The sight of children playing and being mischievous - in Africa, common even within the confines of refugee camps - is absent.

The war victims of Sierra Leone can be counted in their tens, or even hundreds, of thousands. There are child and adult refugees, girls as young as eight who have been raped repeatedly as they worked as sex slaves for the rebels, teenagers seasoned in the use of AK47s and who have killed.

Other children have starved to death - this is known because aid workers have found starving adults whose offspring were already dead. School buildings have become barracks and even using the shade of a tree is out of the question in most villages where survival is a greater priority than education.

Peace has arrived, at least on paper, in the form of a power-sharing deal between the government and the rebels in July. But in reality, two- thirds of the country, which various rebel groups control, remains lawless.

The power-sharing deal requires the rebels to disarm but they are still fighting among themselves for control of the diamond areas.

United Nations peace- keepers arrived this month to take part in disarming an estimated 45,000 rebels. But the terrain remains highly dangerous.

Only last week, unconfirmed reports reached Freetown that Sam Bockarie, a rebel leader, was organising the bringing of weapons across the border from neighbouring Liberia.

Reconstruction - of lives, schools, hopes and even children's innocence - is urgent. War Child is working with limbless children - landmine as well as machete victims - and former child soldiers, and is committed to expanding these projects.

If more of this kind of work is not done, in the country that has West Africa's oldest university and some of the continent's finest academics, a generation will lose its chance of living in peace.


t Girls as young as eight have been raped or forced into sexual slavery by rebel soldiers since the military coup in May 1997.

t Despite President Kabbah returning to power in 1998, the rebels continued their campaign of violence and abduction, with 570,000 people forced to flee homes during a rebel incursion into Freetown in January 1999. t Over 2,000 of them were children who are believed to be fending for themselves in the bush.

t A peace deal was brokered in July 1999, granting amnesties to rebel forces.

t Rebels stormed a humanitarian organisation's vehicle on 17 November 1999 and forced all occupants in to the bush. Some were raped or beaten.

Amnesty International