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Chad: young girl's story offers a lesson in survival

14-09-2007 Feature

Mahassine is a 13-year-old blind girl. She recently had a leg amputated after being hit by a bullet during an attack on her village. Against all odds, she managed to get on with her life. Yvonne Jansen, the ICRC orthopaedist who took care of her, recalls her courage and unrelenting will to overcome her traumatic experience.


  ©ICRC/Y. Jansen/td-e-00205    
  Mahassine shows her father how she can flex and extend her knee.    

Mahassine Halou Adam was born in the city of Adré in Eastern Chad 13 years ago. Totally blind at birth, she grew up with her four brothers and one sister. As she could not attend school, she stayed home helping her mother with domestic chores and played with other children in the neighbourhood. She was always near the house in order not to get lost.

Her life did not stray much from that daily routine until the fateful day in February 2007 when Chadian rebels attacked Adré. Heavy fighting with artillery exchange took place inside the city and its periphery. According to medical sources, 150 people were injured and 15 lost their lives.

Mahasinne's mother, her 18-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother were killed by gunshots when their home was hit during the attack. Mahasinne suffered a gunshot wound to her leg. Her father and three brothers were not at home at the time of the attack. When her father returned he found a devastated and wailing Mahasinne, who had no notion of what had happened.

She had just heard the sounds of gunshots and the frightening screams of people. She could not feel her leg. Her father brought her to the hospital in Adré where her leg was amputated above the knee. She was hospitalized until the wound healed. She often talked to her father about her leg, and the mother, sister and brother she had lost. How could she cope?

At the hospital she was referred to the ICRC, who brought her to an orthopaedic centre in N’Djamena, the capital city, to fit her with a prosthesis, in July 2007. It was there, while I was working as an ICRC physiotherapist, that I met her and her father, who told me their story.

When I first saw her, I thought she was mentally retarded for she had no balance and was always looking up in the air. The people around her were not always very helpful, all talking at the same time and telling her what to do. Then I realized that she was blind. Obviously, her handicap rendered her first steps with an artificial leg quite difficult, and the fact that she did not really understand what this artificial leg was about did not help.

I started by guiding her hand along the prosthesis to help her grasp this new reality, as well as the parallel bar with which she began to walk again. She felt so encouraged that she kept on exercising, and in two days was able to move independently, sit down and get up. By touching the belt around her shoulder which secured the prosthesis, she learned how to open and close the clasp.

She also learned to listen for a click to be sure the clasp was closed as well as listening carefully for the sound of the bolt to flex and extend her knee, and above all the click in the extension when she started to walk. In this way she learned how to put on and take off her prosthesis by herself. I was very moved when she proudly showed her father how she could sit and stand up and put on and take off her prosthesis herself.

Her eagerness to cope on her own was so strong that back home she managed to resume her daily routine, even taking care of her five-year-old little brother. Her courage is a welcome blessing to her father who is now exhausted by a life dedicated to working in the fields. He is very sad and is having a hard time facing the situation.

What happened was not an accident but a brutal and horrific act: half a family were killed, a young blind girl lost her leg, and a father was left behind to support his family on his own.

But somehow, despite all the hardship, Mahasinne is doing well. She is very grateful for the support she received to move on with her life, despite the tragedy that has left deep scars on her body and soul. Far from ordinary, Mahasinne is an inspiring and amazing person, whose enormous strength brings a smile to her face with every step she takes.