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Danish volunteers rebuild lives in Sierra Leone
When the rebels invaded Brima Koroma’s town, everyone fled. He told his wife and children to leave without him while he hid their valuables in the nearby woods. The rebels, unhappy that the villagers didn’t welcome them as liberators from Sierra Leone’s oppressive government, found Koroma and decided to make an example of him by cutting off both of his arms.
“I pleaded with them to kill me rather than to leave me in this condition,” said Koroma. “I was left alone lying in a pool of blood. The village had been deserted. Everyone else was hiding for their lives.”
After the war, Koroma could not find work and did not receive ongoing care from the government. He stayed with relatives and begged on the street to provide a little for his family, including his two sons who would have to go school.
“There was no-one else to take care of me, not even my family because they are poor and they look up to me,” he said.
In 2006 he moved into a village founded by philanthropist Elisa Schanke. A cluster of 20 beige concrete homes beside a highway, the village was created to house those who lost a limb or were otherwise wounded during the war. There is also a school and living quarters for the staff, and soon there will be a health clinic. Like the patron’s home country, the village is called Norway.
Today, Danish volunteers have teamed up with local partners to help construct modern school facilities in the village where Koroma’s four and six-year-old sons attend class.
Volunteers from Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in Denmark are working with members from the Sierra Leone chapter to complete the construction of the Erik Thune Primary School, as well as a health clinic and living quarters for the staff. The school is named after a Danish industrialist and philanthropist, and founder of the charitable organisation helping to fund the project in Sierra Leone.
Those who had limbs amputated or were in other ways wounded during the war face exceptional challenges earning a living in a country with an unemployment rate of about 60 percent among the able-bodied. This makes it difficult to support children and pay for necessities like school fees.
Like Koroma, after the eleven-year civil war, many amputees and war-wounded received little ongoing care from the government. To date, there are demands for compensation.
To compound this problem, children are often shouldered with the extra daily chores that come with having a parent who is physically challenged.
“Our interest locally is that amputees are still facing a trauma. We think the children of the war amputees should at least have a better opportunity to take care of their parents whose limbs were cut,” said Mohamed Salman Khalil, an EWB volunteer with the Sierra Leone chapter.
Many amputees also have difficulty looking after themselves alone, so they rely on family for their most basic needs. This can sometimes mean that if there is not a school easily accessible, education becomes a lesser priority.
“Honestly, we think for some of the adults it may be too late to bring them to a higher level,” said Ove Hjulei Pedersen, a volunteer with the Danish chapter of EWB, in Norway on his second visit.
Pedesen is a retired managing director of an engineering contractor which was installing a solar-powered electrical system to charge school laptops. “We think the future belongs to the children, and the children from the amputee families are in a very critical situation because many parents cannot afford to let them go to school.”
The 90 children, all with a family member who had a limb amputated during the war, attend the primary school, taking classes in a solar-lit building with teachers supported financially by Denmark.
“It was an opportunity for me to do something for the children. I don’t care if the parents are victims of the war or not, as long as the children will learn and be happy,” said Djessie Prahn, a retired teacher from Copenhagen volunteering in Sierra Leone with Seniors Without Borders. Prahn is arranging scholarships for teachers at the school to attend college. “I don’t think there is a very good system here, yet because they have not found their bearings after the war, it’s too difficult for them, I think.”
Ten years since the war ended, the project is supposed to leave the village sustainable.
“The money is from Denmark, but this is our project. It’s for our people,” said Mohamed Salman Khalil, an Engineers Without Borders volunteer of the Sierra Leone chapter. “When we leave, we want the system to run by itself.”
The donations won’t last forever and people in the village know eventually they will have to make their own living. But if children of the amputees get an education, perhaps they will have more opportunities than their parents.