I am swimming towards the Heart of the Matter. The water is cool, deep and impossibly blue. Watching me from the shore is Catherine, a 26-year old British NGO worker, and three Sierra Leonean teenagers, including a 15-year old amputee called David.* Tomorrow, Sierra Leone celebrates 48 years of independence; tonight Freetown will come alive with street parades and festivities. But for now, I’m focused on the Heart of the Matter, the boat that will transport this motley crew from Lakka beach to Banana Island.
I’m back in Sierra Leone, this time on holiday. I knew Abdul*, 14, from when I was last here. In those days, he was a bright-eyed 12-year old who I used to quiz on the capital cities of the world whenever I met him at Lakka. These days, he’s still bright-eyed, but perhaps more interested in dance moves and girls than geography. I had never set eyes on David during the 18 months I worked in Freetown in 2005-06. I can say that with certainty because child amputees tend to stick in one’s head. I remember the teenager who used to beg at the helipad in Aberdeen who was missing both his arms above the elbow, and a small boy at River Number 2 beach with a ‘chopped’ arm flopping uselessly at his side. But most of all I remember one afternoon in Makeni. Wandering aimlessly around an NGO compound talking to a family member in England on the telephone, I heard a persistent tapping at the steel gates. I continued talking but went over and slid open the little window in the gate that allowed you to inspect visitors. At eye level I could see nobody, but looking down I saw a young girl, no older than 10, peering up at me. It took me a few seconds to register that both of her arms were missing, both cleanly sliced off just below the shoulder – like the incomplete mannequins you sometimes see in department stores, modeling some item of clothing which does not require arms or hands. I never found out this girl’s story. I’m pretty sure I turned on my heel and continued circling the compound, not wanting to tell the person on the other end of the telephone what I had just seen, and not wanting to think about it too much myself either.
I learned David’s story, however, within minutes of setting eyes on him. Working in Sierra Leone, Chad and now Liberia, I have lost my original shyness in talking to people who have been affected by war. In my experience, most want to share their story. If they don’t, then they will tell you, and of course that’s fine too. When I asked David if he lost his leg during the war, he replied straight away ‘yes and they killed my parents too’. On the same day, aged just three. A three-year old child, to lose both parents and a limb to a band of marauding rebels, some of whom were probably the same age as David is today, such is the stuff that nightmares are made of. I think of my identical twin nephews who recently bobbed around in front of a web camera in Cornwall telling me ‘we’re fooooourrrr today Emmy we’re fooooourrrr...'
Back in Monrovia, a new expatriate Surgeon has joined our team. Henrike Meyer has worked in Sierra Leone for MSF on 3 different occasions, in 1998, 1999 and 2003. In 1998, her mission ran from early April until late June, during which time she says the team at Connaught Hospital in Freetown treated around 200 victims of amputation / attempted amputation. She remembers in particular a mother of 7 children, the youngest of whom were twins, whose left hand was barely attached and required amputation. The woman had been distraught at the prospect of caring for her children with only one hand. One year later, Henrike encountered the same woman at an amputee camp in western Freetown, and ten years on she still cherishes the moment when the woman ran to hug her and to tell her that she was well, that she was managing despite losing her hand.
On our journey, the boat owner tells me that he had attempted to read Graham Greene's 1948 novel 'The Heart of the Matter', a bleak story of Catholic guilt set in Sierra Leone during World War II, which I struggled through in my first weeks in the country. But it hadn't grabbed him and he never finished it, but he liked the name and used it for his boat. I smile to myself, tell him that he was sensible to do so, and then settle my gaze on Sierra Leone’s coastline from paradise. That this beautiful, magical land became the stage for such acts of cruelty is impossible to reconcile, but it is to the heart of this matter that most Sierra Leoneans are set on journeying, to ensure that it never happens again.