EDP readers helped save the life of a Sierra Leone child 20 years ago after she was shot in the head. Now look at her!
07:49 11 July 2016
This is Tenneh Cole, the bullet-in-the-brain miracle girl, who the world never expected to survive.
That was until EDP readers stepped in and donated more than £60,000 to bring her from Sierra Leone to Norfolk for life-saving surgery. I was deputy editor of the EDP at the time and helped guide that mercy mission, airlifting the traumatised five-year-old and taking her back to her West African homeland.
That was 20 tough years ago during which she has survived the horrors of the bullet wound as well as a merciless civil war, grinding poverty and the killer Ebola epidemic.
I have just returned from our first meeting in two decades and was amazed that she greeted me with huge excitement as the memories came spilling out.
Today, the tiny waif, whose huge brown eyes stole hearts across the world, is a tall and dignified young woman. When we met for the first time in the capital Freetown, she ran towards me and gave me a huge hug. It was a moment of high emotion among so many as I met the a young woman who truly is a walking miracle.
Our first meeting for 20 years
As the graceful young woman in the long green dress began unfurling the length of blue cloth, she paused to show me a jagged bullet hole through its centre.
This was Tenneh revealing to me the headscarf she was wearing as an innocent four-year-old on that awful day when her whole world fell apart.
We were meeting for the first time since that shattering period of her life, which pitched her on to front pages and television screens across the globe.
Now 25 and living peacefully with her surviving aunt, she seemed incredibly at ease about reliving some of the moments of darkness.
Much has been forgotten, as expected from one so young at the time. She also suffered profound deafness – possibly caused by meningitis – as well as being unable to talk fluently and is blind in her right eye.
Yet Tenneh yelled when she saw me and ran over to deliver a huge hug and a cry of delight.
It was a moment of sheer joy as well as relief, as I had feared my presence might have rekindled memories of that injury and experience from long ago.
Her big brown eyes had stolen hearts everywhere back in 1996 during the long weeks of treatment and recuperation in Norfolk.
When she stayed for a time at my family’s home, outside Weybread, her room was bursting with soft toys and dolls donated by strangers from across the UK.
At one point my two children tried to help her tidy them up and she lashed out protectively with impressive blows that testified to how she has survived so many hardships.
Yet behind her stoicism and strength, she also displayed an inner light of joy and compassion.
That was obvious once more at our meeting a few days ago when I was handing over some small gifts. These included a necklace which Tennneh immediately placed round the neck of her devoted carer and aunt, Mariama Mansaiy, 53.
There were other moments that brought a lump to the throat, including the point when she produced her precious surviving photograph of her late mother carrying her in her arms.
And later in her modest home amid Freetown’s warren-like East side, it emerged she had often mentioned me as the white-skinned man she had always nicknamed “Papa”.
Through an interpreter, her aunt said: “Tenneh speaks very little and can only sign a bit. But she says she remembers almost nothing of the horrors when she fled her village and came to England.
“She recalls you as the man who came from there, who had white skin and had always called you by the nickname Papa.
“In this homeland I have helped keep her away from dangers over the years as much as possible. There was the war, then Ebola and also so many awful things that can happen to young women like her. We go the local Catholic church and she has her prayers and the Bible. So I do my best to keep her on the straight road amid so much poverty here and desperation.
“She loves films and is always wanting to go to friends’ houses because we have no TV or DVD player. But I can’t let her out on her own in the dark. It’s just not safe. These streets can be dangerous and so many young girls and women fall by the wayside. She is our miracle of hope.”
The day her life changed
Today’s relative peace is a far cry from that dark day in 1995 which shattered her life to pieces.
She had been playing happily when drug-crazed rebel fighters tore through her village killing and maiming, with Kalashnikov assault rifles and machetes, randomly and without mercy.
Like so many of her friends and neighbours, the little girl ran for her life, suffering a heavy blow to the top right side of her head as she fled into the bush.
A fleeing young couple discovered her bleeding from the wound, which they cleaned and covered before taking her with them on the tortuous walk to the hoped-for safety of the teeming capital, Freetown.
It was thought Tenneh had been hit by a rock, for the wound soon healed as she spent the next 12 months amid the disease and squalor of the Brickworks Refugee Camp on the edge of the sprawling city.
Mercifully, she was rescued by the British charity, Hope and Homes for Children, run by Beccles-born Col Mark Cook and his wife Caroline.
The youngster began complaining of severe headaches and was taken for an X-ray to a local clinic.
‘The technician had been expecting to see some damage caused by the blow from the rock,” recalled Caroline. “He fell off his seat when he saw a heavy rift bullet sitting upright behind her right eye.”
It is thought she was hit by a Kalashnikov assault rifle bullet fired into the air by a crazed rebel. The 2cm slug tumbled back down and punched through her soft skull, penetrating the front right brain lobe, severing the right eye artery and coming to rest in the optical cavity behind the eye.
Immediately Caroline obtained the X-ray pictures and rang me at the EDP to see if I could help, knowing I had friends in the health service and had been involved in a Norfolk plastic surgery mercy mission to Sarajevo during the war there.
Very soon we were on our way to Freetown to pick up Tenneh and her nurse-translator and heading back for her emergency operation at the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
An international response
The story and the shocking X-ray picture went out worldwide, which brought gifts and wellwishes from dozens of countries.
It was a whirlwind of compassion that swept over a small girl from a war-ravaged country rated in the bottom three poorest on the globe.
When I finally took her home, to a new home which the Cooks had created for orphans just like her, her face bore the small scar below her right eye where the bullet was removed.
She still has that scar today, a reminder of a difficult time. Hope and Homes for Children has withdrawn from Sierra Leone to concentrate on its hugely successful strategy of closing all the orphanages and state children’s institutions worldwide.
As a result, Tenneh is under the umbrella of the UK charity Street Child, which is campaigning to help girls and young women like her to remain in education, despite the huge pressures of Ebola, poverty, teen pregnancy, sex discrimination and even prostitution.
The charity, led by Norfolk’s Tom Dannatt, has been working across the embattled country and in neighbouring Liberia, helping thousands of girls and families to ensure their daughters get a full education.
SC Country Director Kelfa Kargbo made an impassioned plea for people to support the Girls Speak Out appeal to prevent so many from failing to finish their education across the country.
“It is the key issue identified in a huge survey we conducted among girls nationwide – this need to maintain their studies so they can achieve their hopes and dreams,” he said.
“Tenneh is a shining example of a young woman who has come through so much trauma, yet we have been able to help provide her with a technical education that will give her a fulfilled life.”
As I hugged Tenneh and her aunt in their tiny home and turned to walk away, she muttered some brief words.
Her aunt said: “She asks that you please write her letters and send pictures from your home from time to time.”
I shook my head and agreed to fulfil this small request from a young woman who has suffered so much.
•In tomorrow’s EDP read how EDP readers and Norfolk medics helped save Tenneh’s life.