A Treasure from Sierra Leone

Beneath the yam was buried a diamond.

Three young orphans, two days without food, were wandering home hungry when they spied the yam beneath a palm tree in war-torn Sierra Leone. It was January 1997, six years into a civil war that stripped parents from children and food from the West African landscape, fulfilling the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) mission to "Leave Nothing Living." As the children clawed the dirt for dinner, something brilliant flashed from the soil beneath the yam. A flawless, 100-carat stone. The hungry orphans were blinded by the dazzling display of hope.

Local villagers reported that a Lebanese trader gave the children bicycles, personal stereo players and some food for their find. Most likely someone gave the trader arms and ammunition for the diamond, perpetuating the war and creating more orphans to wander home alone. "Blood Diamonds," as they were called, were common currency in Sierra Leone.

Two years later, the war still raged and another child searched for food. But 12-year-old Hawa Kargbo didn’t find a diamond. Instead, Hawa found herself surrounded by RUF rebels and herded with other captives into a long, dark night of dread. The next morning, it was the flash of a sharp machete that blinded Hawa with fear as she waited in line for her turn at terror.

"I was in the middle of the line," Hawa said, "and I saw what was being done to the people in front of me. Each of them were having their hands cut off. I panicked. I kept thinking about how I was going to be able to eat or do normal things without my hands.

"When I got to the front of the line, the person in charge told me to put my hands under the machete. He said they were doing this because the president would not meet their demands for money and power.

"I put my left hand in first, and before I knew it, it was gone," she said. "Then I had to put my right hand in." Suddenly, at the tender age of 12, in the dreadful face of fear, there was the flash of something brilliant within Hawa.

"I decided that I would not lose everything, so I did not put this hand in the machete too far."

Hawa ran away from the rebels that day with her last ounce of courage and the partial remains of her right thumb — the bare essentials to survive and overcome. The obstacles ahead would include nine days of hiding in the African bush, two years of waiting in an amputee camp, a trip to the United States on a visitor's visa and seven surgeries to create a "pincher" for her right hand.

Eight years later, Hawa can do about everything but tie her shoes, and this summer a camp full of Young Life families in Colorado were blinded by the brilliant flash of Hawa's spirit. Hawa served on work crew for a month with no pay — and no hands.

"Hawa was such an inspiration to everyone at camp," said Emilee Shim, Hawa's work crew boss at Trail West Lodge. "Her story changed us all."
How did a young girl from West Africa end up on work crew at Trail West? God sent for her. That's the only answer that seems to make sense.

First, God sent Hawa's uncle to find her the day she was abducted. Nine days later, he came across Hawa, hiding in the bush and fighting to survive.

"I chewed some leaves and put them over my wrists," Hawa said, recalling those desperate days of waiting. "This is what my mother had taught me to do to stop the bleeding." Hawa picked up fruit from the ground with her elbows and drank pond water until her uncle finally found her and escorted her — with the help of United Nations soldiers — to a makeshift hospital in Freetown, the capital on the coast. After months in the hospital, her mother by her side, both made a new home in Murrytown amputee camp with 300,000 disfigured refugees.

Two years later, God sent a minister from Raymore, Mo., to find Hawa. Lonny Houk, founder of Feed My Lambs, International, a now-defunct ministry aimed at rescuing victims of the Sierra Leone civil war, chose Hawa along with two other children from the camp to come to the United States on visitors' visas for reconstructive surgery.

Once in the United States, God sent Beth and Steve Whalen to Hawa's bedside. Beth worked in the Public Relations Department of the hospital where Hawa had her surgeries. The Whalens offered to care for Hawa for the three months she would be in the country for her procedures.

"Two months into it," Beth said, "we got a call that Hawa's mother (still in West Africa) had been bitten by a Black Mamba snake as she was preparing a garden and instantly died."

A mountain of paperwork, a maze of bureaucracy and a few years later, Hawa Kargbo became Hawa Grace Kargbo Whalen, living in Leawood, Kan., with her adoptive mom, dad and younger brother, Zack. Finally, as the young girl from West Africa struggled to fit into high school life in Kansas, God sent an Amicus exchange student from Germany to invite Hawa to Young Life.

"I just liked it, so I kept going," Hawa said. "And I would go to church with my leader, Cathy Johnson. I started to question my Muslim beliefs."

"When I went to Young Life camp, I really began to see what the leaders were talking about," Hawa said. "I started to ask a lot of questions about Jesus and what made Him so special. Over the next year, I continued to journey."

Hawa's journey eventually led her to trust Christ.

"Before I came to know Jesus Christ, I was very shy and had low self-confidence," Hawa said. "I was ashamed of my hands. [But when I met Him] I really understood why Jesus loved me. I was made in God's image, and His was the only opinion that mattered."

"Young Life has been the strongest element in her life since she has been here," said Beth. "It has been a godsend to her."

One among many. Clearly God sent a passionate parade of people across eight years and three continents to find Hawa, one priceless treasure in a world of precious kids.

In 1787, liberated slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia and Great Britain returned to West Africa and founded Freetown on the coast. Today, a liberated Hawa hopes to return to Freetown, too. She wants to become a doctor or a nurse and help others.

"I know that I have been blessed by God," Hawa said, "and that He really does answer prayers. I want to do for others what they have done for me." The flash of her smile and the fire of her faith create a dazzling display of hope. Hawa has been sought and bought by Jesus. Beneath the terror and the tragedy was buried a Blood Diamond of a different kind.