DESPITE undergoing a bilateral amputation last year following an adverse reaction to pain medication the future looks bright for Marco Sabatini-Corleone, who is in the process of writing his autobiography and has plans to open a martial arts school.
He continues to live a full life and enjoys everything from driving and cycling to caring for rescued exotic animals.
The 62-year-old, who has been living in Clonakilty since 2004, is being celebrated for his bravery after showing awe-inspiring resilience on countless occasions.
Rather than bow down to his situation he has opted to embrace it and even participated in a virtual marathon for the Simon Community in recent months.
The charity has been close to his heart since he ran away from home in London and ended up homeless at just 12-years-old.
Marco explained that he had been born to a West Cork mother on a halting site before being placed for adoption at three months old. At just eight years old he lost his adopted father in a tragic accident.
“Four years later I was living on the streets,” Marco explained.
“A homeless old man took me under his wing. I told him I was older so he wouldn’t call the police. Even though I was tall for my age he knew I was very young. Before meeting him I had found myself in a lot of dodgy situations. He kept me safe on the streets and was like an unofficial dad.”
Marco will never forget the day he met his best friend Jimmy, who later became like a brother.
“I was sitting in a doorway in Oxford Street waiting for a friend to come back with food. I was 12-and-a-half at that stage. Jimmy had never seen anyone our age sleeping in a doorway before. He asked me what I was doing there and we spoke for a while.”
The brief conversation was to change Marco’s life.
“Jimmy went home and spoke to his granny — a Romani gypsy — about me. She came back to find me and said ‘I think you should come home with us.’ At the time I was wary but it turned out to be really good.”
Remarkably, the martial arts instructor found himself back on a halting site and fully immersed in gypsy culture.
“Jimmy’s grandmother became like mine too. I called her granny Eastwood. She sent me to school but I had to fight for my education as Travellers were very much segregated and faced open discrimination and racism.
“Everyone assumed I had been a Traveller all my life because I lived on a halting site. What they didn’t realise was that I had grown up in a house.”
Marco eventually enlisted in the army: “I joined the forces in order to get out of a bad situation. Jimmy and I both became army cadets. We did everything together until he died in a quarry accident when I was around 16.”
Despite his grief, Marco knew he had to continue working.
“I joined the military police and spent a year as a traffic cop,” he said. “Later I went into the bodyguard wing and travelled around the world to countries affected by different conflicts where embassies were in trouble.”
Marco later worked as a war photographer.
“Photography has always been a passion of mine. I got a camera when I was very young.”
Nonetheless, Marco was disheartened to learn his images capturing the horrors of war had never been published.
“Without my knowledge the photographs were being locked down in a media library. The government had decided they were too horrific to be shown in any magazine or newspaper. I was sitting there pondering what to do.
“Then I met with a guy called James who introduced me to a new role as an aid worker. It was only when I came back that I realised that what I was actually doing was art therapy.
“Most of the kids were so traumatised they weren’t able to talk so we got them to draw instead.”
He recalled one child who, to this day, is etched in his memory.
“One day we were playing music and games with the children. I remember thinking that if I tried to get this boy involved he would either cry or burst out laughing. Then I threw him up on my shoulders and ran around the room to the music.”
Marco recalled the magical moments that followed.
“He laughed hysterically and called me ‘choc choc’ because I was the first person who had given him chocolate. That same boy is now married with children and living in Switzerland.
“He had drawn a beautiful picture which I promised to one day feature on the cover of my book. When I came home I got it laminated. My plan is to keep that promise and feature it on the cover of the book I’m writing.”
Marco could never have prepared for the nightmare that was to unfold.
“We went out of Croatia to Bosnia to pick up supplies and drove into what we now believe was a landmine. it split the vehicle in two and the other volunteer in the car was killed instantly. He had come from New Zealand to volunteer.
“I managed to get out and could hear voices from near the embankment where the waves were crashing off the rocks. I can remember the voice of a man with broken English saying ‘don’t worry, we’ll get you help’. I woke up in hospital thinking it was the next day when it was actually a fortnight later.
“I had always known the risks were high. If you don’t realise you are taking a risk then you shouldn’t be in a war zone. At that stage, I had known so many people who had either been shot or held captive.”
The former voluntary medic was arrested and tortured which intensified the effects of his injury and left him in a need of a wheelchair.
“They couldn’t believe that a journalist would want to be an aid worker. Instead, they believed I was mercenary.
“There were two parts to the prison. One of them was condemned and not in use and this was the part I was put into. They call them interrogation prisons. I was made to sleep on a wire bed with no mattress and a dirty blanket.
“When I got back to the UK, I learned that the interrogators were in fact hardened prisoners before the war who had been hired to do the dirty work of the police. The only people they were answerable to were the government.”
Marco was eventually repatriated to the UK only to find himself homeless once again.
“I knew I wasn’t going to walk again. For a year after that, I was full of anger and not very sociable.
“All the accommodation was upstairs. The way the council looked at it I had chosen to come back in a wheelchair. The next two years were spent back on the streets. Then, on my birthday, I was placed in a hostel by a charity.
“The alarm went off one night. That was when a fire officer pointed out that I was a fire risk. Within weeks I was given a flat in the East End. It was a big change as all my street pals were in the West end but I soon made friends with a guy called John.”
The meeting was to lead to a new chapter in Marco’s life.
John joined a Tibetan Monastery and a few months later I travelled there with him.
“Marco already had a passion for Buddhism and ended up becoming a monk for a number of years.
However, he now lives in Clonakilty with his rescue bull python, Hillary and two parrots Rico and Roxy as well as pet dogs.”
He credits the Irish Wheelchair Association in Clonakilty for helping him through a difficult cocooning period during lockdown.
“I would like to thank everyone in the IWA for showing me the many things I can still do,” he said.
“They also delivered supplies to me during lockdown and I’m particularly grateful to Martin McCarthy, Mags O’Connor, Sinead Burke, and Philipa O’Leary.”