Santos the Woodcarver

Dave Tacon

This article and photograph have been reproduced with
permission from Dave Tacon and Wood Carving magazine (UK).

santos and one of his wood carvingDave Tacon tells of a remarkable young man who, despite the odds, has set himself up with a woodcarving business in Sierra Leone.

Born into a large family of peasant farmers in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, Santos is a shy, softly-spoken young man in his early 20s. More than half of Santos’ life has been spent in the midst of one of the last century’s most brutal civil wars, which shuddered to a halt in 2002.

When he was in his teens, Santos had his right hand sadistically amputated by dissident soldiers who appeared in his isolated jungle village. At gunpoint, they hacked off his hand and the hand of his younger cousin with a rusty machete before locking them inside a thatched hut. There they set fire to it and left their victims to burn while they moved on to the next village. It was 1998.

At this time amputations were one of the brutal trademarks of the Sierra Leonean war. Whilst the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was responsible for the majority of atrocities, amputations were practiced by all warring factions. This, along with the abduction of children to jungle bases where they were brutalised, forcibly drugged and trained to maim and kill, is one of the horrors that put Sierra Leone on the international map.
DeterrentSantos – taking a break

During 1996, the RUF infamously launched “Operation Stop Elections” where amputation became the most terrorising deterrent against civil society, casting votes in multiparty elections. The democratic ally-elected government was soon ousted by a force known as the Armed Forced Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in a military coup. These dissident soldiers formed an alliance with the RUF. When the AFRC was in turn forcibly removed from office by a force of Nigerian-led “peacekeepers” from the Economic Community of West African States, many former government soldiers went bush and joined the rebels.

Santos fell victim to these rebel soldiers who became known as ‘sobels’. These ‘sobels’ may have wanted to punish Santos’ community for its tacit support of forces loyal to the country’s democratic ally-elected government. In a community that struggles to survive by subsistence agriculture, the act of cutting off one’s limbs is tantamount to cutting off the future livelihood of a peasant farmer and his family.

Miraculously, Santos escaped from the burning hut and, like many thousands of other civilian casualties of the conflict, ended up as a refugee in Freetown, the nation’s capital. Here he sought shelter in the Freetown Amputee Camp. Yet Santos’ handicap led him to discover a talent previously unknown to him.

Outside the Freetown Amputee Camp, he was noticed carving stone miniatures, left-handed, by nuns from the Cluny Sisters Catholic Mission. They helped him to learn further by organising an apprenticeship with a local woodcarver. Through money earned selling his sculptures to foreign nationals and while working with other amputees in the garden of the Sisters’ mission, Santos gradually earned enough to commission local blacksmiths to forge tools for him. He was also able to rent a shed of corrugated iron, which he now uses as a workshop.

Santos’ story is one of countless others in a country where untold thousands of civilians suffered the brunt of one of the previous century’s most devastating civil conflicts.

This war crippled the small West African nation and, according to the UN, relegated it to the place of the World’s poorest. Santos continues to hone his craft and make a living in the trying conditions of Freetown.