F R E E T O W N, Sierra Leone, Dec. 3, 2000 -- From the air, Sierra Leone looks like a vision of paradise, with lush jungles and unspoiled beaches.
But at ground level, it’s overwhelmingly clear that the tiny West African nation is the site of tragedy. And a Vietnam veteran who lost both his legs in that war is finding a bond with the victims of this one.
“I’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia and other atrocities that happened to folks in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but nothing can prepare you for seeing these people all mutilated,” said David Evans, an American volunteer.
Evans is working to salvage the lives and the dignity of the people in Sierra Leone who have become victims of Sierra Leone’s 5-year-old civil war.
About three years ago, the RU.F, the “Revolutionary United Front” started terrorizing the people of Sierra Leone by amputating their hands, arms and legs. The amputations are designed to serve as the rebel trademark, a warning of what they were capable of. Most of the victims are innocent civilians who had nothing to do with politics or war.
“Without a doubt, without a doubt, this is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen,” Evans said. “Civilians targeted just to be mutilated, just to mutilate them to warn others.”
There are so many amputee victims that a special camp has been set up for them in Sierra Leone’s capital. Asked what they blame for the war, the victims give a surprising answer: Diamonds.
Amputation is Rebels’ Calling Card The gems are smuggled out of Sierra Leone and into world markets, or they are traded for cash and weapons. Either way, the sparkling gems are believed to be the financiers of Sierra Leone’s revolution.
The rebels, many of them teenagers high on drugs, storm into village and attack people at random. They even target infants. They choose amputation because they consider it the most effective means of spreading terror and intimidation.
“If you kill someone, they go away,” Evans said. “They’re gone. But if you mutilate someone, they are a walking billboard for terrorists.”
As he works with survivors, Evans brings with him bitter personal experience. He is a double amputee who was wounded in the Vietnam War.
“I was wounded in an ambush in 1970, in December of 1970, north of DaNang and I lost both of my legs below the knee. And that’s how I came to work in prosthetics. That was my driving interest.”
Training Victims To Help Themselves He runs a rudimentary workshop in the middle of this refugee camp where he teaches amputees how to make their own artificial limbs, how to fit them, and how to be as independent as they possibly can. In effect, he helps them learn how to help themselves.
“Some of these patients are 5 and 3 years old, so they’re going to be around, hopefully for the next 50 years, at least,” Evans said. “So when we leave, who provides them limbs? It has to be a locally trained national staff.”
And yet with new amputees arriving everyday, the need for help grows. “How can you look at this and not be upset? How can you look at these children and not be upset?” Evans asked. As an American who has lost so much himself, he tries do his part by helping those who have lost more. He has made three trips to Sierra Leone.