- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

The rebels in the tiny west African nation of Sierra Leone don't attack the army; they mutilate the populace. They hack off limbs of men and women, of infants and the elderly, for failure to support their cause or just for fun. And D.C. United's Abdul Thompson Conteh plans to do something about it.

In October, Conteh created the Abdul Conteh Children's Fund (ACCF) to assist the rehabilitation and education of thousands of amputee children who live in his native country.

A mutilation goes something like this: The rebels the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invade a remote country village and round up those who haven't fled. With guns pressed to their skulls, villagers are told to put an appendage on a table. Anyone who doesn't comply is shot instantly.

Villagers watch in horror as loved ones have their limbs hacked off with axes and machetes, knowing they will face the same grisly fate. The RUF doesn't discriminate. In a two-week fact-finding mission to his homeland in January, Conteh visited an amputee camp and came across a 3-year-old girl whose arm was cut off just above the elbow.

"Many times I came back to my house and cried and asked myself why," Conteh said of the mutilations. "Why do they have to suffer like that? [The RUF doesn't] fight the army. What they are doing is a reign of terror. They show up in a village when everybody is sleeping and massacre the kids, the animals and old people. By the time the army gets there, they run away."

Conteh, who was acquired along with two draft picks in a trade with the San Jose Earthquakes for U.S. national team defender Jeff Agoos on Feb. 4, is trying his best to restore the lives of his impoverished people.

Under Conteh's efforts, the ACCF has enlisted the help of Arimed Prosthesis, a Brooklyn-based company that manufactures artificial limbs. Through Arimed's charitable contributions, Conteh has secured a large quantity of artificial limbs to send to the amputees of war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

However, Conteh knows he's looking at a Herculean task. Sierra Leone government officials estimate there are 20,000 amputees, with the possibility of thousands more emerging from the countryside once it is safe enough for villagers to make it to the capital of Freetown.

"What I can do is take the prosthetics company here, raise funds here and take it to Sierra Leone and establish a facility there," Conteh said. "I already have a prosthetics company on board, and I received good news that I might be contacted by another [prosthetics manufacturer], and I intend to take those people there and establish a hospital as well as a rehabilitation center and keep the prosthetics people there."

For his relief efforts, Major League Soccer named Conteh its Humanitarian of the Year.

The war

For more than 10 years, the RUF has waged a civil war for control of the country's vast diamond-producing areas. Reports estimate that more than 1 million of the country's 5.3 million residents have been displaced, 75,000 have been killed and countless thousands have been forcefully amputated.

The 30-year-old Conteh says 20 of his family members have been killed or maimed in the conflict.

To escape the fighting and the RUF, an estimated 450,000 refugees have poured into neighboring Guinea from Sierra Leone and Liberia, whose own civil war ended in 1997. The refugees set up tent cities, but with little food or water and no medical care, many are dying of disease and malnutrition.

Complicating matters, Guinea doesn't want the refugees. Troops have forced Sierra Leoneans back across the border, and many refugees have been killed in crossfire clashes between Guinean troops and the RUF. The U.N. refugee agency has called the situation its worst humanitarian crisis.

"That's the saddest situation we have now," Conteh said. "The Guineans have vowed that this war will not spill into their country. They are doing everything to keep it at the border."

This diamond war is engendered in part by Liberia, Sierra Leone's southern neighbor. Liberian president Charles Taylor is the RUF's main backer, supplying the RUF with weapons and escape from Sierra Leone forces in exchange for diamonds.

Taylor then sells the Sierra Leone-mined diamonds for a profit. De Beers, the South African company that's the world's largest diamond broker, insists it doesn't buy Taylor's diamonds, which fuel this ghastly war. However, late last year the United Nations said the firm had to "accept some responsibility" for the trade in illicit diamonds that fanned the war and others in Africa.

"The American government is really clamping down on Charles Taylor," Conteh said. "He cannot travel outside of Liberia anymore. He might be arrested for war crimes. His cabinet and his family cannot travel to any NATO country anymore, period. Thanks to the United States for putting that pressure on him. The diamonds are going through their country and making the Liberian economy better."

Conteh believes a military solution might be the only one. He says the conflict will end only when government forces or the 10,000-man U.N. peacekeeping mission the largest U.N. deployment in the world can flush the RUF out of the jungle.

Conteh's celebrity status he's the most visible soccer player to come out of the nation, which is about the size of South Carolina and candidness about the situation in his homeland have made the RUF aware of him.

"When I was in Sierra Leone, there was a lot of concern about my safety," Conteh said. "American ambassador Joe Melrose told me to be careful where I go and how I do things. The RUF knows I'm a thorn in their side, and I hope I don't have a contract on my head. I don't know if I'm safe in Liberia. We [had] a World Cup qualifier … Saturday in Liberia, and Joe Melrose advised me not to go."

The mission

Conteh hadn't been in Sierra Leone in six years before his two-week mission in January. He wanted to see firsthand what it will take to right the wrongs of a 10-year civil war.

Along with his sister, Etta B. Toure, the executive director of the ACCF, Conteh arrived Jan. 23 in Freetown, the city where he grew up and learned to play soccer on the beach.

As soon as he arrived, Conteh saw the desperation. With the RUF controlling about half of the country, Conteh saw his people lacking food, medicine and running water, a plight similar to the refugees in Guinea.

He met with various government officials and Melrose before visiting Freetown's government hospital the next day. There, Conteh handed out MLS T-shirts to the victimized children and talked about playing last season in the United States.

On Jan. 25, Conteh visited an amputee camp near the Atlantic Ocean called Murray Town, where he met a 15-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by members of the RUF. The RUF cut off both of her hands and left her pregnant. The girl had the baby, but the baby died from malnutrition five days before Conteh's arrival.

"It's unbelievable what that country is going through and what he is going through," United coach Thomas Rongen said. "I'm so pleased that we have a good guy in this group that is willing to sacrifice for his country. The stories that he told me are just horrific. Some of the pictures that he sent back speak for themselves."

Ahmed Tejan Kabba, the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, met with Conteh during his trip and thanked the striker for his work. The president called Conteh an unofficial ambassador for Sierra Leone.

Conteh presented the president with an MLS jacket, and President Kabba said Conteh should be an inspiration for other countrymen living abroad.

During his trip to Sierra Leone, Conteh was traded to United. He did not find out until he arrived back in the Washington area. Conteh owns a home in Fairfax, Va., where his wife, Denise, and two children live year round.

"My wife told me about it, and I didn't find out because I didn't talk to her," Conteh said. "It's very difficult calling back from Sierra Leone."

The player

Conteh, a dangerous goal scorer, earned the nickname "La Gacela" (the Gazelle) playing in Mexico and Central America.

He made his MLS debut last season and led the Earthquakes in scoring with eight goals and three assists. His goal in the 69th minute enabled the lowly Earthquakes to tie United 2-2 on April 29 in San Jose.

United has four quality forwards in Conteh, Chris Albright, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce, MLS' second all-time leading goal scorer. Of the four, only Moreno has a forward spot locked up.

"Competition is what makes a player better," said Conteh, who speaks fluent Spanish. "When I was in San Jose there was no competition. Whether I showed up to practice or whether I didn't, I'm the starter, I'm the one that is going to play that position. Now that I'm in a situation where there are four players anyone of them can start I know I have to fight to get my spot. I like it because it will make me better."

The quick, agile forward played 17 times for Sierra Leone's national team in 1993 and 1994, including the prestigious African Nations Cup, but the team was disbanded because of the civil war.

Conteh came to the United States as a teen-ager and attended Marshall High School in Fairfax County. Conteh, who has many relatives in the area, played collegiately at University of the District of Columbia but left the Firebirds after his junior year to turn pro in 1993.

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound forward played with Mexican club Rayados of Monterey from 1996 to 1999. He also played for Mexican power Toluca and Atletico Marte in El Salvador. In the fall of 1999, Conteh played for Guatemalan club Comunicaciones and helped lead the team to the league title.

Still, soccer is secondary to what is going on in Conteh's homeland. With a large Sierra Leonean community in the Washington area, Conteh wants to make a difference on and off the field, something he has already begun.

By living here, Conteh has access to this country's policy makers. He has spoken to members of congress about his country's plight.

With United's season opener set for April 7 against the Kansas City Wizards at RFK Stadium, Conteh said he will ask Sierra Leoneans in the area to attend his games.

"I'm going to appeal to them to come to the games and support me just like the Salvadorans come and support Mr. Diaz Arce," Conteh said. "I hope they do that. That would put more people in the stands. [It's] going to be good for [D.C. United] and for me, too, because I'm going to be out there representing Sierra Leone. We need to be represented somewhere. I'm in this country trying to make a difference for my country."

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