Liberia: football helps heal the scars of a brutal past
Amputee football has brought hope and healing to one of Liberia’s most marginalized groups, and to the country itself. These young men are for the most part victims of the war, some of which participated in the fighting, which only adds to the stigma they endure. The ICRC's Mark Wagner reports.
Six years have gone by since the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war, which saw tens of thousands of people killed or injured. Rape and mutilation were commonplace, children were abducted and forced to become fighters, and untold numbers had to flee their homes.
Since 2003, peace has returned and efforts are underway to rebuild the country, but the emotional and physical scars of war remain. Nowhere is this more evident than on a dusty pitch on the outskirts of Monrovia, where limbless young men play football as if their lives depended on it.
They are members of the Liberian National Amputee Football Team and for the most part, victims of the war. Some participated in unspeakably brutal acts against civilians during the fighting and face a daily struggle to live with both their disability and the past.
Their coach, 30-year-old Paul Tolbert, says playing sports has brought an enormous amount of healing to these young men, and restored their hope.
“When you ask them how they felt after they were amputated, most of them wanted to kill themselves,” says Tolbert.
“Life no longer had meaning for them. Amputee football restores their hope. Take the example of the guy who won Most Valuable Player in the recent African Cup of Nations. He was a very good player before he was amputated, but gave up hope when he lost his leg. When I went to recruit him, I told him ‘You can make it, there is still a chance for you.’ He since has regained his pri de and a sense of hope.”
The healing effects go well beyond the players and the sport has brought immense pride to the national consciousness of this wounded nation, according to supporters.
In 2008, the Liberian team hosted the African Cup of Nations and won the tournament. The team has been to Russia and Turkey for international competitions and will travel to England in June for the Amputee World Cup, where they have a very good chance of making it to the final.
The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is their number one fan, ensuring support for travel and profiling the team in her speeches.
Therapy through football
Amputee football began in Liberia as a means of therapy and healing. It was an initiative of the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Rehabilitation, which is responsible for assisting former fighters. Coach Tolbert began recruiting members when he worked for the commission as a counselling coordinator.
“I tell my team they are bringing a sense of victory to the country. In my eyes, they are not disabled. They are men who bring pride to this nation.”
The players themselves say they are motivated by a desire to leave the war behind and make something of themselves for their families. They’re also looking for a sense of belonging and brotherhood among those who know what it’s like to live with the horrors of war and to struggle just to survive.
“I was at church when armed men came in and killed hundreds of us. I lost my mother, father and one of my brothers. My other siblings were wounded and I lost my leg,” says 18-year-old Richard Duo, who is now a star infield attacker and one of the highest goal-scorers on the team.
Leaving the past behind
“Now that there is peace, I have decided not to think about that anymore. I only want to look forward, to see what I can do to help myself and my family in the future. Those terrible things have already happened. I just want to focus on the future.”
For other players, like 32-year-old Anthony Doe, amputee football has opened up a window on the world he never dreamed possible.
“I never thought that one day I would go and see Turkey or Russia but thanks to football, I’ve been able to travel to compete. I've been to Ghana and in April I'll be going to Nigeria for the African championship tournament,” says the striker. “In June, I'll be going to England for the World Cup. Maybe the Manchester United Amputee Team will be interested in me.”
Joseph Allen, 21, was named the best goalkeeper in the Russian tournament.
“I love the sport because I can experience friendship again. Friendship was gone from my life for the longest time. Football brings attention to our disability and helps people better understand that we are able to contribute to society.”