Freetown, Sierra Leone – Sunday is football day in Freetown, when the golden sand at Aberdeen beach becomes a temporary pitch in what has become a ritual for many young limbless men over the years.
The matches are competitive and physical, despite the players challenging for the ball with only one leg while using crutches to balance themselves.
The football is highly skilled and requires immense agility and strength. The goalkeeper blocking the shots has only one arm.
This is Sierra Leone’s amputee football league. The game is a legacy of the civil war that terrorised the country of six million people for 10 years, mercifully ending in 2002. Each of the players has his own horror story of war and how he lost a limb.
The Revolutionary United Front rebel-led conflict was able to take hold and spread its evil course through the West African country as a consequence of a failure of democracy, weak governance and a weak state. The rebels routinely hacked off people’s arms and legs to keep opponents in line.
“The land mine blew off my foot. A fragment of it killed my father. I was lying in the bush for two weeks without treatment.“
– Footballer Mohammed Lappia
Now, as Sierra Leone goes to the polls on Saturday, these amputee footballers are hoping the process will be peaceful, and that the country does not slide back into violence.
The election is a reminder of their painful past and what is at stake for the nation, they say.
Painful past and football
The disabled teams on the beach are from the Sierra Leone Flying Stars Amputee Football Club. The captain, Mohammed Lappia, 26, comes from Kenema in the east of the country.
Lappia recalls the day his life changed when he was out in the bush with his father and he stepped on a land mine.
“The land mine blew off my foot. A fragment of it killed my father. I was lying in the bush for two weeks without treatment,” Lappia remembers. “My leg started to go rotten, I eventually got taken to hospital but I lost my leg.”
Amputee football has played a huge part in his life, he says. It has given him and his teammates a focus and purpose in life.
When he had two legs, Lappia always favoured kicking with his right foot. Now with only the left one, he has transformed it to master this version of the sport.
He jokes about his players getting together to purchase pairs of boots: one for a left-footed amputee and the other for a player with only a right leg.
The camaraderie and humour found around most football teams is even stronger among this group. A number of players confessed that playing on this team was the only time they really felt at ease.
|A footballer rests during a match [Martin Davies/Al Jazeera]|
Amputee Football was started in Sierra Leone 12 years ago by the Single Leg Amputee Sports Association. The association – and the game – have received a good deal of exposure, sending teams to England, Brazil, Turkey, Russia and Liberia.
Last year, however, there was a parting of ways as Lappia and his teammates broke away to form the Flying Eagles.
In amputee football, the only player with two legs is the goalkeeper, but he can have only one arm. The club’s shot-stopper is Mohammed Camarra, who also happened to take part in the 2012 Paralympics, running in the 100 metres.
Camarra, like thousands of others in the country, lost his arm through amputation by rebel forces.
“They placed my arm on to a large stick. I was aware of a rebel approaching from behind. He raised his cutlass and chopped through my arm,” Camarra grimly recalls. “I could see blood. I could see the hand fighting and the fingers playing.”
Amputation as a message
Amputation was used by the rebels to send a message to opponents that they could act with impunity and would go to any lengths. Thousands of people are estimated to have had their limbs cut off.
“It was about creating fear. They wanted to get the whole Sierra Leone public down on its knees and fear that they could be in danger of having their limbs chopped off,” says Professor Osman Bah, a programme officer for NGO Leonard Cheshire Disability International.
Working with disabled people, Bah – who contracted polio as a child – also suffered during the war, fleeing from the rebels through a combination of cycling, hobbling and being carried to neighbouring Guinea.
His organisation was part of lobby effort that resulted in the Disability Act being passed in the Sierra Leone’s parliament last year.
The act includes the creation of a national commission on disability to collect information about discrimination and abuse of disabled people’s rights, and then hold offenders to account.
The Campaign for Good Governance, which is monitoring the presidential elections on Saturday, says the poll preparation is going well.
It has been greatly assisted by biometric voter registration to reduce duplication and vote-rigging, the organisation says. But it acknowledges in the past, there have been problems.
“The politicians could flee the situation. My parents were just poor farmers, they couldn’t leave. We are disabled because of the political situation.“
– Ahmadou Kamara, amputee
Ten years have passed since the end of the civil war, but one can still sense nervousness regarding the country’s political stability.
As the sun begins to set over the Atlantic Ocean at Aberdeen beach, Lappia and his teammate Ahmadou Kamara share their concerns about the election.
“I just sit down and feel so angry about the government,” says Kamara.
“I think about my parents (who were killed by the rebels). The politicians could flee the situation. My parents were just poor farmers, they couldn’t leave. We are disabled because of the political situation.”
Lappia, who dreams of studying law and politics, thinks about the past and how it is tied to the current elections.
“When I think about the political situation, I feel sad,” Lappia says. “I am praying to God that at the time of the upcoming elections everyone is peaceful, and that whoever wins the result is accepted peacefully. We are the legacy of the war and we don’t need another one.”