WASHINGTON - After hearing federal lawmakers yesterday address the dismemberment of children and adults in her small West African nation, Memunatu Mansaray, 4, extended her arm - a stump, hacked above the elbow in civil war strife - to a Baltimore schoolgirl of 9, Richelle Ford, who beamed and scooped her up in a flash.
Memunatu was one of six children and two adults who arrived last week from an African amputee camp to tell their stories to Congress and to receive medical treatment in the United States.
The room was crowded with people attending a House International Relations Africa subcommittee hearing on the wounds inflicted by rebels in Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, in which an estimated 75,000 civilians have been killed and 20,000 have undergone forced amputations. Committee members said they wanted to gain a deeper understanding of conditions in the country.
Listening solemnly was a goodwill delegation of five pupils, one teacher and LaUanah King-Cassell, the principal of SS. James and John Catholic Elementary School in East Baltimore.
King-Cassell said the school had scraped together $700 to contribute to bringing the eight Africans to America for treatment and fitting of artificial limbs in New York.
"The world is much larger than East Baltimore," she said. "With their little pennies, they made a difference in the lives of kids across the planet. If that's not a miracle, then I don't know what is."
The principal said most of her children are eligible for free or reduced school lunches.
By saving pennies from their allowance during Lent, she said, the 323 pupils at the inner-city school gave to the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group of former Peace Corps volunteers who organized and raised funds for the visit. The previous year, the school's penny campaign for Sierra Leone yielded $400.
The five Baltimore pupils chosen to go to Washington yesterday, three girls and two boys ages 8 to 11, awoke while it was dark in anticipation of acting as ambassadors for their school.
"The older children could handle it [seeing the maimed children], but the whole school participated," said King-Cassell.
At first, the Baltimore schoolchildren (among them Kirby Gaddy, 9, and Wilbert McDonald, 11) had trouble following the dialogue between Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, and the main spokesman for the Sierra Leone contingent, Muctar Jalloh, 27, a former student who declared his forgiveness of the man who maimed his ear and took his lower right arm but said he would never forget when it happened: 4:50 p.m. April 19, 1998.
Speaking of his seven companions, even the youngest, he said, "They remember. Who could not?"
The meaning of some words was unclear - or, as Megan Sherman, 9, said, "I couldn't spell a thing they were saying."
Gradually, some began to understand the cause of the civil war they had been studying in school: control of the country's diamond mines. Not that it made any more sense, though.
"They're just little kids," said Brandon Thomas, 8, who found 200 pennies in a Pringles can and gave most of them to the cause. "I feel like I'm the same person."
Another concept the children grasped is that the eight Africans represented thousands of victims of terror directed at civilians - in schools, hospitals, churches.
One subcommittee member, Rep. John Cooksey, a Louisiana Republican, had visited in July and referred yesterday to Sierra Leoneans as "kind, gentle people."
In an interview, he said, "Those children may have done more for Sierra Leone than Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress!"
Fatu Koroma, 10, drew a gasp when she told the subcommittee matter-of-factly that she was an orphan -"no mama or papa" - and had lost her right arm above the wrist.
After the hearing, the Baltimore youngsters went to greet and present each African with a handmade card.
In a heart-rending situation, they brought some light and won praise. "They rocked! The cards they made and the way they came and talked afterwards," said Courtney Alexander, a subcommittee staff member.
"They set an example for the rest of America to step up and stop the mayhem," said Royce.
Megan, a fourth-grader, , said she would take home a simple conviction: "They cannot do that to a whole country."
Don Mooers, a lawyer who orchestrated yesterday's day event for the Friends of Sierra Leone, said the children enhanced the average level of awareness.
"The only way foreign affairs becomes relevant is when there is a hometown element," Mooers said.
Jalloh, leader of the Sierra Leone group, said the Baltimore children boosted morale.
Their presence and contribution, he said, made "things much more happy."