Despite suffering a horrific and violent attack aged just 12 years old, Mariatu Kamara has become a beacon of hope and resilience for women around the world.

A native of Sierra Leone now living in Canada, Mariatu is one of the women featured in the Women and War photography exhibition currently on show in the Powerscourt Gallery, Dublin 2.

Mariatu Kamara photographed by Nick Danziger

Mariatu Kamara photographed by Nick Danziger

In 1999, when Mariatu was 12 years old, rebels captured and tortured her as she came home from the fields, then chopped off her hands with a machete.

Remembering that night that changed her life forever, Mariatu says “When they cut off my hands I passed out.  I thought it was a dream which I could wake up from the next morning. But it was no dream.”  She continues, “Ten years on I am still wishing that it’s just a dream.”

“I begged them for a long time not to cut off my hands.  I said kill me but do not cut off my hands.”

Maimed and devastated, she spent three years in a refugee camp, begging on the streets of Freetown to survive.  There were 260 amputees living in the camp, some were children as young as 2 years old.  In this camp Mariatu was given some prosthetic hands, but they were heavy and ‘didn’t look like hands’.

Listen to Mariatu tell her story:

Her resilient nature prompted her to join a camp theatre troupe, and with other young amputees, she helped raise awareness of her country’s plight by performing and dancing.

Speaking at a recent launch of images taken of her in 2001 by award winning photographer nick Danziger, Mariatu said, “I am one of the lucky ones to be here,” adding, “Being part of this exhibition is life-changing. I am here for all those women.”

Mariatu now lives in Toronto. She became a social worker so she could help women and children and is now Canada’s UNICEF Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict.

She has a 10-month old daughter whom she named Amira, meaning “Princess.” She said her daughter gives her hope for the future.

Her book “The Bite of the Mango,” written with the help of Canadian journalist/author Susan McClelland, takes its name from the first food Mariatu ate after she was attacked.