Girl hugging amputee

4th May 2001 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Harald Henden, 40, has covered many wars and is lucky to be alive - in Israel a rubber-coated steel bullet entered the back of his head - but in Sierra Leone he was shocked by the extremes of brutality. "When the rebels from the Revolutionary United Front attacked Freetown in January 1999, the trouble in Kosovo wiped it off the news pages in Europe. These people didn't get any attention. That was my reason for going there," he says.

As the RUF tried to take over the capital, Freetown, they sent in bands of boy soldiers - some as young as seven - to terrorise the city and its outskirts. They were organised into units such as Cut Hand Unit, whose members specialised in cutting off limbs; Kill, No Blood Unit, which beat people to death; and Burn and Destroy Unit, which burned down people's homes, even if they were still inside.

Such brutality was possible because many of the boys were forcibly drugged. A commander would cut a wound into the side of a boy's forehead, cut the drug into the wound and plaster it together. There were several hundred gangs, and an estimated 3,000 people were amputated with machetes or other weapons.

At Murray Camp in the middle of Freetown in March last year, Harald found several hundred amputees among the refugee families. They had been fitted with artificial limbs by aid workers from Medecins Sans Fronti res and were trying to survive by begging on the streets.

One afternoon two handless sisters, aged 15 and 16, came back from a day's begging. The camp manager, a man in his early twenties with no right hand, welcomed them back and they sat down and shared out the money with everyone there. "I foun that touching," says Harald, "because in a place like that, living in desperate conditions, it's very much everyone for himself."

This was before British troops were sent in to quell new fighting, but boy soldiers who gave up their weapons to UN troops were already being allowed to rehabilitate into society.

Harald visited a house where 30 to 40 boy soldiers were living. They slept in one room, with no mattress and just a few blankets between them. And they lived off whatever they could get.

One seven-year-old explained to Harald why he had cut off people's hands in the war. "The rebels recruited by taking boys from their village," says Harald, "and later they forced them at gunpoint to raid their own families and neighbours and mutilate or kill them. It sealed their fate because it meant they had nowhere to run later. So these boys were victims too."

This picture seems to capture the triumph of human affection over brutality. Harald was taking pictures as a journalist interviewed this girl's father (who is not in the picture), while his son helped him smoke a cigarette, because both his hands - and his tongue - had been cut off. As a friend of the family walked by, the man's daughter ran to him and threw her arms around him, oblivious to the hard metal hooks that had replaced his hands.

BRENDAN O'MALLEY. Photograph by Harald Henden

Web links: Sierra Leone news: www.abcnews.go.comsectionsworldDailyNewssierra_leone_british000615.html

Artificial limbs: www.pofsea.orgtreatmenttreatment.html

This photograph won the Science and Technology section of the World Press Photo 2000 awards:

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