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Sierra Leone survivor loses hands, but not hope

Rebel soldiers disabled tens of thousands of civilians in a widespread campaign of terror during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, chopping off hands and feet. But Mariatu Kamara has not let her fate stifle her hopes.

She was just 12 years old when her country's civil war entered her life, changing its course forever. Mariatu Kamara was living with her aunt and uncle in a village in Sierra Leone, helping on the family farm. Sierra Leone was in the midst of a decade-long war. Legions of war amputees - disabled by rebel forces - were making the world's headlines.

Mariatu and her family were not immune to these reports that ordinary children like her were being plucked from their families and forced into a life of violence - against other children. But it seemed far away. Then one day in 1999, Mariatu's peaceful childhood was shattered when rebel soldiers, not much older than she was, abducted her. In an instant, her life was transformed in a most brutal way.

"I was captured by the rebels with my cousins and held hostage for many hours," she recalls. "Then at the end of the day, they ended up cutting off my hands, both hands. Imagine: a 12-year-old girl, cutting off her hands! What do you expect that girl to become like?" The passage of time hasn't dulled the sense of anger and shock she still feels at being deliberately disabled.

Mariatu's attackers explained they were cutting off both her hands to prevent her from ever voting. She passed out after the attack. When she regained consciousness, she found herself amid a sea of dead bodies in a village in flames.

A child soldier in Sierra Leone holds a Kalashnikov

Thousands of children fought as child soldiers during the civil war in Sierra Leone

Gaining new strength

Mariatu managed to find shelter in a nearby forest where she spent the night. The next day, she met a man who offered her a mango. That act was to be a defining moment for her. She says it gave her the will to go on.

"Just the fact that this was my first fruit after I was released by the rebels and also the first food after I lost my hands," she says. "But I wasn't able to hold the mango as I used to, with my regular hands." She had a choice: give up or take the mango from the man and manage to hold it with her two bleeding hands. She managed it.

"The sweet part of it is that I was able to do that and after that I was able to regain my strength again to continue walking," Mariatu says. "I realized that my will was stronger than what happened there." The experience inspired the title of her memoir, "The Bite of the Mango" published in 2008. The taste of the sweet fruit affirmed her will to live, but the difficulty of holding it in her bloodied arms underscored the enormous challenges she still faced.

After being treated for her wounds by doctors in Freetown, she spent three years in an amputee camp under very poor conditions and was forced to beg for money on the streets. But she found solace in a theater group that toured the city. It allowed victims to dramatize the impact of the war on them. Mariatu says that it helped her begin to overcome the psychological trauma she suffered as a result of the war.

"The theater group in the camp helped me because music is a very healing thing," she says. "It was good. It raised awareness about the war." Mariatu's life then took a turn for the better.

A helping hand from Canada

Adama Koroma at her shop in Makeni

Adama Koroma, who today runs a small shop in Makeni, lost one hand to the rebels

Sierra Leone's brutal civil war raged in the West African country from 1991-2002. The plight of the conflict's victims appeared in newspapers around the world. A Canadian family read about Mariatu in The Toronto Star and offered her a place in their home. Soon she was on a flight to a country she knew little about. But for Mariatu, it was a lifeline.

"I didn't know anything about Canada, I didn't know who I was going to meet there," she recalls. "But I was happy to get out of where I was, to go somewhere where I could have a better life."

Taking a leap into the unknown led to opportunities Mariatu had never dreamed of, such as the chance to have a formal education. Her move to Canada gave her the opportunity to attend school and helped her realize how important education is.

Today, 27-year-old Mariatu says she learned to live independently without hands; she gets by without the use of prosthetics. She is now studying to be a social worker in Toronto and hopes that her unique experience will help others get through their own traumatic times.

"I believe my story will have a huge impact on helping me understand what other people are going through," she says. "If I am counseling a war victim or an assaulted person, I will be able to use my own experience to help me understand where they are coming from."

As a UNICEF Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Mariatu has also been sharing her story at schools and with groups - to empower, to inspire and to warn about the cost of war.

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