Blama Massaquoi, 19, arrived in Minnesota in June unable to eat or even swallow his own saliva. Living on mush he pushed through a tube inserted in his stomach, he was too weak to walk. And talking was painful.
Now - eating rice, soft fish and Cream of Wheat - Massaquoi is slowly gaining strength, thanks to medical workers at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids who donated care for the Liberian torture victim in response to an appeal from the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture and other agencies working in Africa.
The chain of events that brought Massaquoi to Minnesota began Jan. 10, 2003, in Monrovia, Liberia's war-torn capital. Shy and weak, he told his story with the help of R. Jarwlee Tweh Geegbe, executive director of the human rights group Prisoners Assistance Program Inc., who traveled with Massaquoi to assist him.
Massaquoi - at the time, an 11th-grader - had gone to a friend's home to work on a biology assignment. As he walked home, a pickup truck pulled alongside him. Suddenly, Massaquoi knew he was face-to-face with the threat every Liberian boy had learned to dread.
The government - led by now-exiled president Charles Taylor - routinely snatched boys from the streets to fight rebels in outlying districts.
"They just grabbed me and threw me in the back of the pickup," Massaquoi said. "I didn't fight because I was afraid."
The pickup sped north toward Lofa County, the front line in Liberia's civil war, until it was ambushed by rebels. Under a hail of gunfire, Massaquoi escaped. He and two other boys hid for more than two months on old farm land where they could scratch edible roots from the soil. When the food ran out, they headed toward Monrovia.
But rebels in the movement called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) pounced on them, Massaquoi said.
"They said we were government forces," he said. "We tried to explain that we were not fighters. We pleaded with them. They didn't believe us."
The rebels beat the boys, he said, then ordered them at gunpoint to drink a concoction of chemicals commonly used to make an abrasive soap.
"The other boys drank the first two cups," Massaquoi said. "When my turn came I took a mouthful. Drank it. Took another mouthful. Then a senior commander came in."
The rebel officer knew Massaquoi's family and saved his life. But it was too late to save his esophagus. While the other boys died, he struggled with painful swelling in the back of his throat and downward. When he no longer could swallow food, a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Liberia inserted the feeding tube and issued an international plea for someone to provide surgery.
In Minnesota, the appeal reached the Center for Victims of Torture, where one of the board members is Venetia Kudrle, the president of Mercy and Unity hospitals. She spread the word, and a team of surgeons, radiologists and other medical workers stepped up to donate services.
Massaquoi arrived for surgery on July 1 weighing 96 pounds and severely malnourished, said Dr. Kevin Steadland, one of the surgeons. No one knew for sure what he had been forced to drink, but Steadland guessed it was lye. There was no guessing about the damage. Beginning in his lower throat, Massaquoi's scarred esophagus was closed to the point where "nothing could get through," Steadland said.
The delicate surgery involved replacing the esophagus with part of Massaquoi's colon. There were complications, Steadland said, but the surgery went well enough for a nurse to sum up the emotions in the operating room: "I feel good about the job that we did."
Said Steadland, "It was stressful because it's one of those operations that don't always go well. But it worked. It is gratifying to see how he has done."
Massaquoi has gained about 3 pounds since the surgery. He may always need to eat carefully, Steadland said, and he may need follow-up care.
Recuperating now at the St. Paul home of a Liberian family, Massaquoi talked about another scar that surgeons cannot treat: "When I lie down to sleep, I have terrible dreams that those guys who captured me are still trying to kill me."
Geegbe, of the Prisoners Assistance Program, said Massaquoi represents Liberia's desperate medical needs after 14 years of civil war. While the nation struggles to regain stability, it is critically short of experts who can treat the war's casualties and train others to provide treatment, he said.