casualties of war

Dennis Parker is 33 and from Tubmanburg, Liberia.

Dennis Parker is 33 and from Tubmanburg, Liberia.

In 1990, at 16, he was forced to take up arms on behalf of then-president Charles Taylor. After three years of teenage killing for the National Patriotic Front, his right leg was shattered in a street gun battle. One year later he had the leg amputated just below the knee. He fought on for four more years and then found himself begging on the streets.

Horrors enough are generated by war but, occasionally, man's ability to rise above them generates powerful examples of inspiration which reach far beyond the immediate battleground.

Dennis is such a man. He has become a hero as a star goal scorer for the Liberia Amputee Sports Association (Lasa), one of half a dozen teams who field a total of more than 150 players. Almost all of them, like Parker, are victims of the genocidal civil war that wrecked the country.

Much of the credit for the chink of sporting relief in a bleak landscape of hate and mistrust belongs to the Reverend Robert Karloh, a Pentecostal minister who had seen the therapeutic value of amputee football in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

It was Karloh whose negotiating patience persuaded Parker and more than 100 fellow amputees to end an occupation of Taylor's former headquarters and try to rebuild their lives - unlikely as it seemed even to them - through sport.

Karloh persuaded the suspicious, starving and initially belligerent Parker to help him create the Lasa club.

Amputee football has rules all its own. Outfield players have only one leg, goalkeepers only one arm, and if the ball strikes the crutch of a defending player or the arm stump of a goalkeeper in or around the goal area then a penalty is awarded. The goal itself is half the size of the orthodox version.

Parker and his teammates have especial reason to be grateful for soccer. Some 13 years of war left the Liberian economy in tatters, its people massively impoverished.

Very little mutual sympathy is available for anyone, least of all amputees whose very injuries are often considered as marking them out as having been boy soldiers.

"People now take amputees to be bad people, like animals. When the fighting stopped there were thousands of us, a mob, on the streets, with nowhere to go and no one to take care of us. Luckily for us soccer allows us to be, well, renewed. And it has helped me go to places I would never have been." says Parker.

"I have managed to go to Freetown in Sierra Leone, to Europe, to Russia. When I walk on the streets, people know me. We are able to live again. Before, taxis would not stop for a disabled man because the drivers would think we had been responsible for killing their families. Now all that is changing, little by little."

Lasa's first match was a defeat by a team from Sierra Leone. But they finished runners-up in the first All-African Amputee Football Championship last February in Freetown.

Liberia lost a thrilling final 4-3 to Ghana whose Collins Gyamfi finished as the tournament's 10-goal top scorer. Sierra Leone's Amadu "Bob Jones" Kamara was voted the event's top player.

The successful game prompted a US government donation of $30000worth of medical support and kit.

"The amputee status is a stigma. There is a tendency for people to reject these men who fought the war that tore the country apart. Now everybody comes along to see them play football and cheer for them." says Lasa founder Karloh, who became involved in the African amputee football movement through his work as deputy director of disarmament.

For him the success and popularity of the players is not only a form of social work but a feature in national reconstruction.

"The community likes their game, it is a tool for reconciliation. It sends a message: 'I have forgiven you'. It's a form of healing. We have people who fought against each other now playing on the same side in harmony."

Not only do Liberia's amputee footballers play in harmony, they played with enough success to qualify for the Amputee World Cup in Turkey. This is one of six disabilities which 'own' their own international tournaments. The other categories are blindness, cerebral palsy, deaf and hearing impaired, partially sighted as well as learning disabilities.

Says Jeff Davis, national football development manager of disability at the Football Association in London: "When we started in 1999 our main aim was to give everybody an opportunity to reach their potential.

"That may just be playing locally but it could also be moving through the player pathway and eventually playing for one of the elite national teams.

"So, at the beginning, it's just to play the game and, as they progress, it's really serious competition and the players want to be the best players they can."

Davis' world in England and Europe is far removed from the one in which Karloh found himself in war-torn Africa.

But Davis strikes a similar chord when he says: "Before I joined the Football Association I worked for a disability organisation and I saw that sport could be really powerful for these guys to help them with rehabilitation or just to help them as an extra activity, something to enhance their lives." - Fifa Hidden Stories