In many parts of the world, babies and their mothers are fighting for survival. ABC News has launched an effort to help: the Million Moms Challenge, with the goal of recruiting one million Americans to support mothers and children in developing countries. To see the difference aid can make, ABC7 journeyed to a country many in the United States associate with blood diamonds and war: the West African nation of Sierra Leone.
By CAROLYN JOHNSON and TIM DIDION/ABC7
Driving into the lush heart of Sierra Leone is a jarring ride. And in many ways, the violent twists and turns mirror the recent decades. A brutal civil war ended in 2002. But memories still scar the country.
Fatoma Kallon was just 8 years old when he was kidnapped by rebels, who cut off both his arms.
“I believe it was out of shear wickedness,” Kallon said through a translator.
Similar atrocities would be repeated throughout the war, including the systematic rape of hundreds of thousands of women and girls.
Kinny Jollah remembers the day fighters overran her village.
“Killing innocent people, cutting their throats, burning, looting,” Jollah said.
And when it was over, many had no home to return to. Charred buildings still pepper the landscape in diamond-rich areas like Sumbaya. When the rebels came through what used to be a bustling shopping center in the heart of Sumbaya they torched buildings, destroyed businesses, and killed people in the marketplace.
Nearby, villagers still hunt for the diamonds that helped fuel the insurgency. Nearly three quarters of the population survive on less than $2 a day.
Meanwhile, the government is struggling to rebuild hospitals and clinics destroyed during the war.
Malaria still kills thousands of children every year, along with diarrhea and malnutrition.
But amid the suffering and heartache, there is also a strong sense of hope. Scores of humanitarian organizations are training health care workers, providing vital medicines and helping rebuild the infrastructure. One of the largest is World Vision, which has also recruited more than 100 families from the Bay Area to sponsor children in Sierra Leone. Their donations help fund programs to revitalize entire communities.
“Now our drinking water is clean,” village volunteer Abul Yankuba said.
Surgeon Dr. DJ Lavaly just returned to Sierra Leone after training at San Francisco General Hospital’s Trauma Institute. The trauma unit in Sierra Leone, run by the Italian government, is the only one of its kind in the country.
“We’re always full, always,” Lavaly said.
And while doctors and aid groups work to heal the physical fallout of the war, Sierra Leone is slowly tackling the psychological scars as well.
On a beach in the capitol city of Freetown, young amputees have formed competitive soccer teams.
Rebuilding projects are underway in both the city and countryside and a decade removed from the violence, a new generation of children greeted ABC7's crew in every village with smiles and shouts of excitement.