Mohamed Kamara was only 4 when he was captured and his arm cut off by rebel fighters during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, which ended just over 10 years ago. Systematic amputations became a gruesome trademark of the rebel’s terror campaign on civilians during that time. Though many died in these attacks, wounded Kamara managed to survive. Now 18, he will be the first athlete since the end of the civil war to represent Sierra Leone at the London Paralympics, which kicked off on Wednesday.
By Damon van der Linde, Freetown
“The rebels came and attacked our town. We ran with my grandmother, trying to save our lives,” says Kamara. “They captured us and chopped off our hands. They laughed and told us we should go to the president, because he would give us our hands back.”
But Kamara has come a long way since. After winning the bronze medal in the 100 meters at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi in India, he qualified for the London Paralympics. His legs are fully functional but without the forward momentum derived from swinging both arms, it’s harder for him to run as fast as an able-bodied athlete.
On and off the track
He trains with two coaches, both of them on a voluntary basis. Joseph Lahai has worked with Kamara for the past five years. He says that, along with training drills and exercises, most of his work is about preparing Kamara psychologically for life both on and off the track.
“Sometimes I call Mohamed over and I tell him, ‘the country we are living in is very difficult. Whenever you love something, you have to do it with all your heart and with all your will,” says Lahai. “When you’re successful, everything is going to be okay. Put everything behind you and just feel like an able-bodied person,” Lahai tells his protégé.
The young athlete begins his training as the sun rises over the hills in his neighbourhood on the outskirts of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. He says because he normally can’t afford the bus fare to the stadium downtown, most of the time he trains here, sprinting up and down the steep, rugged terrain.
This modest training ground understates the enormity of the challenge ahead of him: so far, Kamara is the only athlete from Sierra Leone to qualify for 2012 Paralympic Games in London. But he keeps his cool.
“This feels like a dream now because I’m well prepared to represent my country,” he says. “It makes me feel proud to be Sierra Leonean.” A sprinter, he will be competing in both the 100 and 200-meter races.
Watch a video below on Kamara's training:
Although the war ended more than a decade ago, poverty remains endemic in Sierra Leone. Kamara is in the process of completing his secondary school exams. Living with his brother, he says he struggles to pay for even the most basic necessities. Often, he can't even afford breakfast before training.
But although the road to London has been far from smooth, Kamara does get some support from the Olympic Solidarity Commission, which provides funding to athletes from developing countries like Sierra Leone.
Henry Moore, the President of Sierra Leone’s Olympic Committee, says they are doing what they can to help, with no support from the government.
“It’s not a problem with Mohamed alone. Normally most of the athletes are not well off financially,” says Moore. “But matters have become a little difficult because of the load the government has, especially after this war. They don’t have enough funds to fund all sports.”
Because of his disability, Kamara can’t help but realise he might not have the potential to become a world champion like his hero, Usain Bolt. But he says he found another calling: standing up for the rights of people with disabilities in his country, who are some of the most vulnerable in society.
“You never know, a person can become disabled at any time. Maybe you can get in an accident,” he says. “You need to encourage the disabled people, you need to bring them into the community, and you need to bring them into society. We are all human beings.”
Besides his brother and an aunt, Kamara still has his grandmother, Aminata Conte, whom he was reunited with after the war. And she is extremely proud of her grandchild.
“I’m getting old and am already blind in one eye,” she says. “But I’m so happy to watch Mohamed succeed while I can still see.”