People who know Lansana say he is magical — like a boy who landed on Mars from a distant, troubled place.
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Wendy Cohen remembered one of her first encounters with Lansana after he was brought to the United States from his war-ravaged native country, Sierra Leone. "He put his arms around my neck, and he said, 'I can't lose you. I can't die. I don't know you yet.'"
Cohen was swept into Lansana's life by proxy, just as she was ending a relationship with Ian Zlotolow.
Zlotolow is a well-known doctor, the former chief of dental service and maxillofacial prosthetics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He can quote Bob Dylan lyrics from memory. He is the one who found Lansana in the heart of darkness -- the reason that he, Cohen and Lansana now share a kind of power over each others' lives.
"Somebody had to do something," Zlotolow said. "And isn't this all just a simple twist of fate?"
The cause that brought their fates together was the civil war that began in 1991 in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Seeded both by government corruption and forces recruited by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who sought to destabilize Sierra Leone as he plundered resources there and in his own country, the civil war set tribal faction against tribal faction, revolutionaries against government troops. It was worsened by vicious battles for control of the country's alluvial diamond fields.
Atrocities were committed by all sides, sometimes acting in concert with each other to enrich themselves. In a world where limbs were hacked off; where children were kidnapped, stoked with drugs, and placed on the front lines of battle to draw enemy fire; where among the ways that human beings can damage and destroy each other, few methods were overlooked -- in one regard, Lansana was lucky. As a young boy of 5 or 6, after chasing a soccer ball into the bush, he was bitten by a snake.
"He was taken to the village doctor who bloodlet him," Zlotolow said. "Apparently, he was very traumatized."
An uncle abandoned Lansana at a hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone. Lansana's father was missing. His mother was dead. How she died hasn't been determined.
Lansana walked with crutches as the infection from the snake bite worsened. "He had osteomyelitis, and it spread up his [right] leg," Zlotolow said. Osteomyelitis causes bone tissue to die.
Of his time in the hospital, Lansana remembers "just being in a lot of pain, lying in the same old bed. I remember this one guy who died next to me. I just turned around, and he was facing toward me. It was kind of scary."
Late in 2001, Zlotolow arrived at the hospital as a medical volunteer on leave from Sloan-Kettering. Zlotolow specializes in creating prosthetic parts for facial wounds and deformities. Among other things, he made replacements for ears that had been hacked off by machete-wielding soldiers.
"All the ear prostheses that I made … were all for young men," Zlotolow said. "I don't know what side they were on. But it didn't matter then."
When Zlotolow encountered Lansana lying on a hospital bed, he asked Lansana to smile, hoping to estimate the boy's age from the condition of his teeth. By that time, Lansana had been in the hospital for nearly two years, and was 7 or 8 years old.