Peace girl is all grown up
Mariama Conteh (later Conteh-Elliott) rests at Staten Island University Hospital, where she is treated for osteomyelitis. Rebels in Sierra Leone cut off her left hand during the country’s civil war.
On a chilly fall afternoon, a tall girl races back and forth across a soccer field in suburban Washington, D.C. She’s a key defender in her high school’s quest to win the Single A Independent School League championship.
Her gait is strong and steady, but as No. 21 runs in her red jersey and black shorts, she lists slightly to the right, the side of her “little arm,” as she calls it. Her right arm was amputated above the elbow after rebel militia shot her and her family in Sierra Leone. She was two years old then – a toddler named Memunatu Mansaray, who became a symbol of one of the most brutal civil wars ever waged.
The press called her “peace girl.” An adorable wide-eyed child carried to peace talks by the president of Sierra Leone, she represented the tens of thousands of victims maimed by rebels who used widespread amputations to terrorize the population for 11 years. Using machetes, they hacked off the hands and feet of civilians in a quest to take over Sierra Leone’s alluvial diamond region. Images of the girl and other children like her helped build the global political will to intervene and end the war.
Today, the “peace girl” – who appeared on the cover of The Rotarian in August 2002 and in the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue – is 16, and her name is Memunatu Mansaray McShane. Called Memuna by most, “Mem” by her teammates, she’s a high school sophomore and has earned spots on her school’s varsity basketball and soccer teams. She is a budding artist and an aspiring entrepreneur who loves Japanese comics, young-adult fantasy novels, and the game of Risk. She went through her Harry Potter stage, and last spring she took up interpretive dance, weaving a performance together out of a statement she made in class one day:
“I feel less human because I have one arm. Lots of people bother me about it, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I can do anything that anyone with two hands can do, and more.”
That Memuna can do this – and that she is alive, many who know her story would concur – is due to a Staten Island prosthetist; the Friends of Sierra Leone, a Washington-based advocacy group; and, in large part, a group of steadfast Rotarians on New York’s Staten Island.
Matthew Mirones, owner of Arimed Orthotics and Prosthetics, was so moved by newspaper photos of child amputees in Sierra Leone, he wanted to bring some of them to the United States and fit them with prosthetic limbs. Five Rotary clubs on Staten Island and one in Brooklyn, along with their charity, Gift of Limbs, agreed to organize the medical care, transportation, schooling, and housing. Friends of Sierra Leone, founded by a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers, helped identify candidates in an amputee camp in Freetown, the capital, and suggested that the children appear before Congress and the United Nations. The young amputees would break through what the group had termed the indifference of U.S. legislators to a sadistic war halfway around the world.
In September 2000, just days after arriving in Washington, six children, along with two adults, all survivors of rebel attacks, testified in a packed chamber about the atrocities in their country. They addressed the members of the House Subcommittee on Africa. “We thought, ‘They can speak for the 20,000 butchered Sierra Leoneans who could not make the trip,’” says Donald Mooers, who was then the advocacy director of Friends of Sierra Leone, which grew to include Africans living in the United States.
“These kids had an impact that was nothing short of miraculous, because individuals at high levels saw the consequences of the brutality firsthand,” Mooers says. “There was nothing buffering these members of Congress from the results of their inactivity and apathy toward this horror in Sierra Leone.”
The Rotarians held a fundraiser on Staten Island in 2001, bringing in $45,000 and drawing former U.S. President Bill Clinton and then Senator Hillary Clinton. They also found a way to keep the group of amputees in the United States. “They were supposed to go back, but we decided it wasn’t a good idea because the country was so unstable,” says Carmine DeSantis. His father, also named Carmine DeSantis, and his great-uncle Joe Mandarino were the two Rotarians who led the effort.
They also secured pro bono legal help for the group to file petitions for political asylum in the United States, which was granted in March 2002. They succeeded despite opposition from Friends of Sierra Leone and government officials in Sierra Leone, who had agreed to visas so the group could get prostheses and medical care.
“My personal feelings and our legal obligations were two different things,” says Etta Touré, a member of Friends and a native Sierra Leonean, who helped Mirones decide which war victims from a teeming amputee camp in Freetown should be included in the group. “We sought their visas on certain legal boundaries, and we felt we had to abide by those boundaries.”
But the Rotarians, led by Mandarino and DeSantis, did not want to send them back to a country still trying to solidify peace. Charles Taylor, then president of Liberia, had yet to face charges for engineering the atrocities in Sierra Leone. (He was arrested in 2003. Last April, he became the first former head of state convicted of war crimes by an international court since the Nuremberg trials.)
The group also feared that, given the publicity, the children would be targeted for theft and harassment, says Nancy Passeri, whose husband was a Rotarian and chief executive officer of Staten Island University Hospital at the time. The hospital provided free medical care and housing to the amputees for almost two years, and Passeri became as involved with the youngsters as the Rotarians. She remains in touch with them today.
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