Cheerful Assumpta Khalil shares her story in an Interview conducted by Gboyega Alaka , The Nation
Assumpta Khalil thought it was all over when she lost her right arm to an accident at the peak of her youth; however, when she met David Anyaele, who had lost two hands to rebels’ indiscretion during the Sierra Leonean civil war of the early 90s, her eyes opened to a bright new day. Gboyega Alaka spoke with the two, whose paths needed to cross for the other to live.
WHEN you meet Assumpta Khalil for the first time, the first thing that strikes you is her beauty. Assumpta is fair and pretty in a manner that catches the eye. Next is the fact that she is one-armed, which she makes no effort to hide. More than anything, you also notice her confidence and self-assuredness. She first caught the attention of this reporter late last year, when at a Project Alert proramme on Gender-based Violence & Women with Disabilities held at Watercress Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos, the main facilitator of the day, David Anyaele of the Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CDC), himself a disable who lost two hands to the Sierra Leonean civil war in the early 1990s, spoke of how his story inspired her to take another look at life, having been disillusioned at losing an arm at the time and desperately considering ‘doing something funny to herself’.
Next came lunch break and some good fortune brought her next to this reporter’s table. The composure and distinguished manner in which she carried herself and did justice to her meal, further made a conversation and an interview inevitable. For some reasons, the interview was however, not to take place until over half a year later.
How true is it that Anyaele’s story inspired her to live again? Did she actually consider suicide? What was it like in those desperate days? Questions, questions… but first, she spoke about how the accident that led to the loss of her arm happened.
“I had the accident on my way to school on December 13, 2002; a Wednesday. I was an ND student at the Polytechnic, Ibadan and was going to check my result to see if all was well or if I needed to retake any of the courses. And then it happened. It was head-on collision between our 18-seater bus and an on-coming vehicle just as we approached a bend. It was a bad spot and our bus somersaulted. Many people fell out; some died of shock; but I happened to be among the few survivors. We were rushed to State Hospital, Ijaiye, Abeokuta. Of course I lost consciousness and woke up later to discover the accident affected my right arm and right breast. In fact, I was in coma for long and they told me a certain woman, named Mrs. Bose, whose brother was also involved in the accident (I never got to meet her), seeing that my condition was deteriorating, took money from my purse and paid for the first operation that resuscitated me back to consciousness. It was after that that I was able to give the doctors my details and one of the doctors, Dr Oloko, was able to trace my family in Lagos.
Ordinarily, they would not have suspected anything had happened to me because, usually, the network was always so bad in that area, that reaching me by phone was always a difficult task. So my family came and saw that my condition was really bad. The doctors told them I would need an amputation but they vehemently refused. Later they requested for voluntary discharge, which the hospital granted and I was taken to Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital, Lagos. But the doctors at Igbobi told them the same thing. Again, my family refused, insisting that there had to be an alternative. So the doctor, Dr Mbaleme had to come to me. He said ‘Assumpta, I’m going to have to amputate your hand.’ That was like the first time I was hearing that word. I asked what he meant and he explained that ‘I’m going to cut off your hand.’
He said the level of infection had reached a dangerous level ; that I was lucky that it wasn’t my left had that was affected, otherwise it would have affected my heart, which could lead to death. As evidence that time was of the essence, he pointed out to me that my arm was already turning green. He explained to me in a long conversation that I could still live and that he didn’t want me to die.
“I remember the first question I asked him was, ‘Would I be able to have children?’ But he told me amputation did not mean my womb would be amputated. I also remember asking him, ‘Who will marry me?’ And he smiled and told me, ‘Don’t worry, when you get there and you don’t find someone to marry you, let me know.’
“After all said, my family still refused and I was now the one who was pleading with them and convincing them. Meanwhile the pain remained and it was not something I can describe. It’s only someone who has passed through that route that can comprehend it. I was totally devastated, so I told them, ‘If you don’t allow them to cut off the arm, then that means you want me dead. Eventually they gave in.
The morning after
I guess I was put to sleep with anaesthesia. Usually I don’t sleep long, so I woke up around 4/5am. However I wanted to go back to sleep. I suspected the deed had been done and didn’t want to face the reality. The fact that I wasn’t feeling the usual weight on the arm, confirmed my fear, so I closed my eyes tight, but sleep wasn’t coming. In fact, what finally woke me up was the wailing of my mother and other relatives. Everybody was crying… and it was a terrible experience. I woke up and faced reality.
That was the Part Two of the trauma for me.
Recalling the feeling when she woke up to see that one of her arms had been cut off, Assumpta said, ” I lost it. I told myself it was over. I just couldn’t accept the reality. I was just 23, the peak of my youth, and I was wondering how I was going to continue with my schooling. I had dreams … of becoming a successful journalist, a newscaster or radio presenter; all suddenly seemed wiped out. It was as if someone came with an eraser and wiped them all out. I felt like ending it all.
At the main ward, where she was supposed to recuperate, Assumpta said her health rather deteriorated. “I was not in the right state of mind. First, they had to deal with my right breast. Only a tiny flesh held the whole of my breast together and I could actually see the green and black of the inner parts of my breast. The doctor said they were going to place me on a one week treatment and if it did not respond, they were going to take another drastic decision. Of course that meant they were going to cut off the breast, but to God be the glory, the breast started to respond and the green and black started turning red and it came back to life. It was the first part of my body that healed.”
“To tell you how low I sank, I no longer saw any future and I contemplated suicide on a lot of occasions. I actually tried overdose about three times, but somehow my body did not respond and I didn’t die (laughs). Yeah, I can actually laugh over it now, but back then, it was a grim situation. I would save some of the drugs I was supposed to take over a period of time and then swallow them all at once, but it didn’t work.”
David Anyaele, my turning point
“It got to a point, my situation started getting worse. I was not responding to treatment; my blood pressure shot up incredibly. The doctors were on their toes; they said ‘Assumpta, you’re thinking’, but I said I wasn’t – because I really didn’t think I was. But beyond that, the pain was killing. Believe me, amputation is better experienced. I was always under observation. At a point, Dr Mbaleme came to me and said, ‘There is someone I’d like you to meet.’ That doctor, he was God-sent. I don’t know what would have befallen me if not for him. Then I had been in the hospital for about two months. He had given Mr. David my phone number and he had called me ahead.
“That day, I saw a man smiling, as he approached me. He said, ‘Hello, are you Assumpta? I said ,yes; he said I’m David, spoke a bit and then brought out his two hands! I was like aaaghhh! What! Both his hands were cut off from just above the wrist! I was shocked and tongue-tied. And now, I was the one who was feeling pity for him. I said, ‘Sorry… are you okay?’
“But he smiled and said, ‘How are you?’ He said my name is David and I am a friend of your doctor. He told me you have not been responding to treatment.’ I told him I was in a very devastating situation and that I was losing it.
“But he looked at me and said, ‘I wish I had one hand like you.’ And that was like a discovery moment for me. I realised that my situation was not the worst.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Can you feed yourself?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said ‘Who feeds you?’ I said ‘My mother. He said ‘Do you bath yourself?’ I said ‘No.’ I said my mum does everything for me.’ Then he said, ‘From today, you are going start doing all these things by yourself. ‘
“Then he said ‘You are going to get hold of a pen and start writing. I remember the first day Mr. David made me write with my left hand; I was like a kindergarten writing. But he led by example by writing with his stump. He also ate with his stump. I was really amazed. Honestly, he was a bundle of inspiration.
“That was like the turning point I needed. Everything changed. I started seeing the positive side of life and started looking forward to seeing him. In no time, I started recovering and that was when it dawned on me that I had indeed been thinking. I had two more operations and then I was discharged. Mr. David kept coming to counsel me until we lost contact.
Assumpta recalled that she paid dearly for losing contact with David Anyaele, as she fell into depression, which she said lasted five whole years.
“I lost it again. I told myself it was over and withdrew from the society. I wanted to die. I deliberately made myself a prey to the world and thus became vulnerable. I lost my self-confidence and this time, it was big time. But one day I told myself, ‘Enough is enough’.
At a point, I started experiencing stigmatisation from my friends, family, even in my relationships. I tried keeping one or two relationships and one actually worked out; but it started rearing its ugly head again. My in-laws started sticking it in my face. Unfortunately, my husband started dancing to their tunes. He allowed them to influence him and began using harsh words on me. He said things like, ‘I don’t even know what I am doing with you.’ He even called me an imbecile and went as far as telling people I was his sister, generally treating in a manner that was less human. It got to the level of battery. I started experiencing serious battery and it took the intervention of the neighbours, who raised money for me and told me: ‘Assumpta, if you don’t run for your life, this man will kill you.’
“So I took the cue and ran. it was the best decision I ever took.”
So now, Assumpta said she is a single mother living with her siblings. She sells ankara fabrics, assisted by her siblings. She also does voluntary works with NGOs and has been through lots of capacity building workshops and training, which she says has boosted her experience and helped her to give back. She also works with David Anyaele at his Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CDC).
So now, Assumpta said, “For me, life is beautiful. I don’t want to die anymore. I have a bright future and I want to live for myself and my two daughters, and for the people for whom I am an inspiration.” SPEAKING on how he was able to pull Assumpta out of the depth of hopelessness, David Anyaele, in his Centre for Citizens with Disabilities office in Opebi-Ikeja, Lagos, said it was easy. “I just made her see that her case was not the worst and that she could still live and be happy.”
“Naturally, she was devastated, having lost her upper right limb in a motor accident. She thought that was the end of life for her and was trying to commit atrocities on herself. One of the doctor who knew me, invited me to come and speak with her.
“Then I used to wear the short agbada called danshiki, so when I go about, I’d tuck my hands inside to avoid curious eyes and unnecessary pity. I went to meet her and we got talking. I started telling her about Jesus Christ, that God has plans for her, that she was still beautiful, would get married, have children and be fulfilled. I told her that the fact that she lost an arm did not mean that it was the end of the world for her…. But the look she gave me, as I spoke, was like, ‘Who’s this talking to me? Do you even understand what I’m going through?’ But just before I finished talking to her, I brought out my two stumps and she screamed in shock.
“There and then, she said I was qualified to talk to her – more qualified as a matter of fact. Immediately, she fell in love with me and I became like a brother to her. When she was discharged, we exchanged visits and I kept motivating her. And then we lost contact.
“The next time I saw her was years later when she was married and had children. As I speak, she is a volunteer worker with us and she comes to the office from time to time.
How Sierra Leonean rebels cut off my two hands to spite Nigeria
Recalling how he lost his two hands, Anyaele said it was in the early 1990s, during the Sierra Leonean civil war.
Having been born and bred in Aba, Anyaele said he finished secondary school and went full-time into business. He started out as a clearing and forwarding agent in his early 20s and later went into import and export business. He bought goods in Aba, which he said was the hub of manufacturing in Africa at the time and shipped to Sao Tome & Principe, Luanda in Angola, Sierra Leone et al. Soon, he moved and settled in Sierra Leone, just about when they were coming out of their crisis (civil war).
“The then president, Ahmed Tejan Kabba, had just been reinstated by the Nigerian contingent of the ECOMOG Peace-Keeping Force, but suddenly in January of that year, the rebels invaded and seized the capital city, Freetown. A State of Emergency was declared and ECOMOG declared a Mopping up Operation and were pushing the rebels out of the city.
“In retaliation, the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, RUF, who were not happy about Nigeria’s role in what they termed their ‘internal affair,’ started targeting individual Nigerians. They were going from house to house, maiming and killing Nigerians and setting their houses on fire. In the process, they attacked my residence. The first time they came, we jumped the fence and escaped. When we thought the situation had stabilised and had returned to our homes, they struck again. This time, they surrounded the house; I ran into a nearby cemetery but they caught up with me, seized me and cut off my two hands. They actually killed some other Nigerians. They also set me on fire; I sustained third degree burns. The commander said he was leaving me to go and show what they had done to me to the Nigerian government and tell them to stop attacking them in the name of ECOMOG and that Sierra Leone belonged to Sierra Leoneans.”
Recalling the moments after the vicious attack, Anyaele said, “I was bleeding seriously from both hands, as walked in the midst of war towards the government held area. I was seeing death in front of me and all that was in my mind was to get where somebody who knew me would be able to identify me and alert my people, so they would not wait for me endlessly.
“As I crossed to the other side, I saw the United Nations team, who carried me in their vehicles and took me to a hospital, where I was given first-aid. Later the Nigerian contingent of ECOMOG evacuated me in a helicopter to Lungu Airport from where they transported me to Nigeria and gave me intensive treatment at the Military Hospital.”
Anyaele was discharged months later and the reality of living without limbs dawned on him. What however made his experience more painful was the fact that the federal government, which action caused the attack on him, and his home state government, Abia, abandoned him to his fate. “They failed to see the need to rehabilitate me. Worst of all, they went to bring the man who master-minded the killing and maiming of Nigerians, Charles Taylor, to live in Nigeria.
The resultant effect was a huge challenge and devastation on his family. Anyaele said as a first son, it cost psychological damage on the entire family. “My sister suffered psychological trauma and died. My younger brother, the same, but he survived. My father also died. Our economy was reduced to naught and everything that was bright before became bleak.”
Road to recovery
“I was looking for a place where I could get spiritual renewal. I got it. I happened to worship at Victory Sanctuary Seventh Day Adventist Church; it was there that my spirit got renewed and I came to appreciate God in a special way. I came to understand that it was not his plan for me to lose my limbs, that he had better plans for me, plans to prosper. It was in that process that I caught the vision and my mission. My personal mission is to serve as a leading voice to promote the rights of people with disabilities in collaboration with state and non-state actors.”
Thereafter, Anyaele said he started his hospital evangelism and peer support programmes for new amputees. He also came to understand that there is a constant struggle between good and evil, which further helped him rehabilitate, adding that “In my own case, nobody rehabilitated me.”
Seeing that every time he needed to go out, he had to make provision for two people, which was becoming expensive, he said he called on God one day.
“I called on God to teach me to be independent and He took charge. God taught me how to take care of myself without external assistance. he taught me how to feel, how to dress, how to bath, write, without anybody’s assistance. In any case, most of the people that came across me didn’t know how to help because it was the first time they were seeing a human being without both arms. ”
For almost a decade, Anyaele said he went about without artificial limbs, until a group called Miracle of Songs led by Titi Adebayo organised a musical concert to raise fund for him on December 30, 2002. It was after that that he was able to raise N5million, with which he procured artificial arms in Germany.