September 2001 | Archive | View images | © Rui Xavier
reportage Crippled harvest
Salvador belongs to a group of ten Angolan children, aged between 12 and 16, that is undergoing treatment in the Military Hospital of Coimbra in Portugal. All of them have stepped on anti-personal landmines and lost a leg. Most of them were just playing in the fields or helping the parents with the crops when they were caught by the 'seeds of the devil' - mines planted by the men of war and left to be harvested by innocent men, women and children by chance.

Lying on the red couch of the physiotherapy room, Salvador says he is "thinking about life". His hands don't stop moving and his eyes are fixed to the floor. However much the social worker may try to cheer him up, the boy doesn't look up at her. Worried for him, she asks if he is sad? "No I'm not sad, mum Sofia."

Salvador and the other children call all the women around them 'mum': the social workers, the teacher, the lady in the canteen, all are mums. The mums of the Military Hospital of Coimbra, in the central region of Portugal, welcomed these children from Angola with a wide smile and open arms.

Salvador is still on the couch with eyes on the ground. He is 16 and, unlike the other boys on the group, he has no one waiting for him when he gets home to Angola. "I have no family left. I used to live with my grandmother but now she has passed away". He speaks of what happened to him, remembering everything in great detail: "I was in Kuando with my grandmother and that day, like any other, I was walking to our small field when I stepped on the landmine near the train line. It was the 11th March 1996. I was taken to hospital and my leg was amputated the next day, the 12th."

When Salvador was finally able to return home from hospital, he found his grandmother bedridden, struck down by a disease. "I took her to hospital and that was the last I saw of her. Later, I was told she had died". After spending some time on the streets, he was taken in by Kusola, a home for abandoned children in the capital, Luanda. At Kusola, he heard some encouraging news. "I was told that some of the children who lost their legs to landmines were being taken to Portugal and fitted with prosthesis so they could walk again. But I never thought I would be chosen to come."

These young amputees arrive at Coimbra's Military Hospital, under an agreement between the Portuguese and the Angolan governments, that receives groups of ten children for a period of three months. During this time they undergo special physiotherapy training with the aim of preparing them to be fitted with an artificial limb.

After the limb has been fitted, they return to Angola and are able to walk again without the use of crutches; they can even run and play football. But the most important factor for some of them is that they are now able to work. "Now I can do a desk job or something like that," says Francisco who was recruited by the FAA (Angolan Armed Forces) to fight the rebels when he was only 14 years old. He lost both his arms in a war he was forced to fight. "If I was in charge, I would order all the fighting to finish" he naively protests. Now, with his new hands, he has won back his independence. Donning his hat and dark glasses, he proudly explains that he can now eat his meals without any help, "Fork in one hand, knife in the other!"

As time goes by, the boys get used to the artificial limbs. "They run around like mad! And they're not very careful" says the concerned social worker, Sofia. "But you know how it is, they're just children. Salvador is the only one who can calm them down, he's a kind of an older brother to them."

Salvador has started to show great interest in reading and little by little he raises his eyes from the ground towards the books. "Every time I come into the room, I find him reading," Sofia explains. The teacher who is helping some of the boys in basic literacy during their stay in Portugal, told her that Salvador is the one who has progressed the most.
Because of this interest in books, as well as the fact that he has no family left in Angola, he is being given the chance to stay in Portugal, living in a home for young people. He's now planning to study by night and work during the day: "I like everything - science, geography, languages - but first I have to get some qualifications."

"He's definitely a special case," says the director of the military hospital. "Normally, the children return home to their families. That's where they belong. Our aim is to give them a better quality of life, allowing them to be physically independent. We do not want to take them away from their families."

The time for going home comes earlier than expected because the children have adapted so well to the treatment. Anxiously, they enter the van that will take them back to the airport. "Their progress was excellent," says Doctor Rodrigues. He came with the children from Angola and is now going back to select another group to bring to Portugal. "The determination of these children is overwhelming," he adds, visibly proud of his boys.

At the airport, Salvador, Sofia and some of the nurses and military staff say goodbye to the children. They take group pictures. Francisco raises his plastic arms and hugs Salvador. They've become best friends. "I'd like to stay here as well and study with you but I miss my mother," he confesses.

The loudspeakers call the passengers for the Luanda flight. Francisco, André, Pedro, Paulo, José, Sósinho, Jacinto, Moisés and Evangelista go up the escalators, walking without the help of the wooden crutches and wheelchairs that they needed when they arrived three months ago. They go to the boarding gate and stop, turn back and wave goodbye to Salvador again. Salvador lifts his eyes from the ground to get a last glimpse of his friends and says goodbye one last time.

Words by Adriana Bolito

September 2001 | Archive | View images | © Rui Xavier