David Aguilar was five when he first discovered Lego, entering a world where it didn't matter he was missing his forearm, and four years later, he built his first prosthesis with it.
Now on the verge of finishing a degree in bioengineering, he dreams of working to help other children who, like him, were born different.
Aguilar was born without a right forearm as a result of Poland syndrome, a rare disorder which can cause severe abnormalities in the shoulder, arm or hand, but it has not stopped him from living his life.
Now 22, this Andorran student -- who has been obsessed with robots since he was a child -- has little free time: aside from finishing his degree, he gives motivational speeches, has written a book and taken part in an innovation conference run by NASA.
But getting here hasn't been easy and his face hardens as he recalls the years when building things with Lego was his only refuge from bullying.
"When I was a teenager, I carried on playing with Lego because it was a way of escaping the bullying, it really helped me ignore all the jibes I had to put up with every day," he told AFP at his university residence near Barcelona.
During his teens, he set up a YouTube channel calling himself "Hand Solo", a play on the name of smuggler-pilot hero Han Solo from the early "Star Wars" films.
Over the years, he fine-tuned his construction skills and by the age of 17, he had managed to create a fully-functioning Lego prosthetic that allowed him to do his first-ever pushups with two arms.
Since then, he has further refined his technique, proudly showing off his latest version, the MK5, which has a much more sleek robotic look and long pale-blue "fingers" which are activated by muscles operating a motorised pulley.
Long accustomed to life without his forearm, Aguilar doesn't use a prosthesis every day but he knows that many people do, and that it can cost many thousands of euros for the newest models.
"Since I made that first prosthesis, I realised that I had the power to help other people. And when I looked in the mirror and saw myself with two arms, I thought that other people really might need that too," he said.
- Arming an 8-year-old -
After he was awarded the Guinness World Record for creating the first functional Lego prosthetic arm in 2017, news about Hand Solo's wizardry quickly spread.
Finding his story online earlier this year, Zaure Bektemissova decided to write him an email from her home in northeastern France.
Her son Beknur, she wrote, was eight-years-old and had no arms. The doctors couldn't make him a normal prosthesis and she was looking for help.
"Prosthetics are mostly standard, they are big and heavy, so for his spine it was not a good idea," she told AFP at her home in Strasbourg where the family has lived for two years since her husband took up a diplomatic post at the Kazakhstan consulate.
Aguilar promised to try and at the end of August, Bektemissova and her son drove 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) to Andorra, a tiny principality in the Pyrenees mountains, sandwiched between Spain and France, to meet him and try out the new prosthesis he'd made.
Made entirely of Lego, the lightweight device has a pincer-like grabble at the end which Beknur can control with a cord manipulated by his left foot.
"Now I can grab things with my hand, before I couldn't," beams Beknur, throwing a ball to his brother.
Having that extra bit of independence has really helped, his mum says.
And the experience has inspired Aguilar.
"If I did it for Beknur, why not for any other boy or girl who's missing an arm or a leg or a foot?" he says, his eyes alight with ideas.
© 2021 AFP
How do you help someone with their leg bitten off by a shark? Groundbreaking research by an Australian medic-surfer has uncovered a simple way to stop bleeding and save lives.
Find the middle point between the hip and the genitals, make a fist and push as hard as you can.
Shark attacks are rare but on the increase Down Under, due in large part to more people being in the water.
So surfer and Australian National University medical school dean Nicholas Taylor set out to discover how to reduce fatalities in the event of an attack.
Many fatal shark bites occur around the legs, leaving the victim to bleed to death despite making it back to shore.
In a study published by Emergency Medicine Australasia, Taylor found that a simple technique to compress the femoral artery was much more effective in stopping bleeding than traditionally-used tourniquets.
His study showed that by making a fist and pressing down on the artery around 89.7% of blood flow was stopped, versus 43.8% using a surfboard leash as a make-shift tourniquet.
The technique worked equally well with the patient wearing a wetsuit and without.
"I knew from my background in emergency medicine if people have massive bleeding from their leg, you can push very hard on the femoral artery and you can pretty much cut the entire blood flow of the leg that way," he said in a statement released by the university on Friday.
"It is easy to do and easy to remember -- push hard between the hip and the bits and you could save a life."
Taylor hopes the technique will become widely known among Australia's roughly half a million surfers, for whom shark encounters are less uncommon.
"I want posters at beaches. I want to get it out in the surf community. I want people to know that if someone gets bitten you can pull out the patient, push as hard as you can in this midpoint spot and it can stop almost all of the blood flow," he said.
© 2021 AFP
They threatened to dissolve her in acid. But Debora Cerreoni would not be cowed, and her testimony in Italy has proved decisive in exposing a new mafia -- the Casamonica.
The organized crime family hit the headlines in 2015 when it laid on a flashy funeral in Rome for "uncle" Vittorio Casamonica, with his coffin borne on a gilded horse-drawn carriage.
Rose petals were dropped from a helicopter and posters outside the church in the east of the capital declared him the "King of Rome", while mourners were greeted with music from the film "The Godfather".
Despite family members boasting in wiretapped conversations of being powerful enough to challenge Italy's storied mafias, the Casamonica were long seen as a local, if violent, criminal gang.
But that all changed this week, when a Rome court classified it as a mafia association and sentenced five of its chief members to up to 30 years each, under Italy's strict prison regime for mobsters.
"It's a very important verdict, primarily because it destroys the illusion that there is no mafia in Rome," said Nando Dalla Chiesa, a professor of organized crime at Milan University.
"The city has struggled to accept the fact that there are not just elements of the powerful (Calabrian) 'Ndrangheta or (Neapolitan) Camorra crime groups here, but there's a homegrown mafia too," he said.
- Loan sharks -
Two other crime families have been designated as mafia in the municipality of Rome in recent years, but both are based in the neighbouring seaside town of Ostia, not in the Eternal City itself.
The court found the Casamonica members guilty of drug trafficking, extortion and usury.
The clan -- which has its roots in the Sinti Roma community -- controls the southeastern suburbs of the capital and the Alban hills beyond, according to a report commissioned by the Lazio regional authorities in July.
Rome's mayor ordered eight illegal and typically ornate Casamonica villas bulldozed in 2018 Filippo MONTEFORTE AFP/File
The Sinti is a traditionally nomadic ethnic group that has lived in Europe for centuries.
The first Casamonica moved to Rome from the Abruzzo region in 1939. When Vittorio died in 2015, his descendants were known to police as particularly fierce loan sharks with a penchant for bling.
Vittorio had learned from a friend in Rome's underworld in the 1970s -- Enrico Nicoletti, the "cashier" of the Banda della Magliana, which controlled drug trafficking in the capital.
Like Nicoletti, "Uncle Vittorio" cultivated ties to the rich and powerful. He was "a man with contacts... (in) the police, the Vatican... he got in everywhere, got whatever he wanted", one witness said.
The family grew rich and built villas with marble and gold furnishings, swimming pools and large stallion statues -- a nod to their horse trader origins -- as well as bundles of cash hidden in walls, witnesses said.
It forged contacts with Colombian drug dealers and started trafficking cocaine into the capital.
- Thrones and trap music -
A major drug bust in 2012 saw 32 members of the clan arrested and millions of euros in assets seized, and the family came under greater scrutiny.
The Casamonica mafia is a tightly knit crime family with its roots in the Sinti Roma community Alberto PIZZOLI AFP/File
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi ordered eight illegal Casamonica villas -- complete with chandeliers, ceramic tiger, thrones and imitation frescoes -- bulldozed in 2018. She vowed this week that "the fight will go on".
The Casamonica does not have a boss but is an "archipelago" of genealogical branches joined by arranged marriages, according to the report by the Observatory on Organized Crime.
Its "eccentric aesthetic taste" sees Romany traditions given a Camorra-inspired twist, while its members share a passion for Neapolitan crime songs and trap music, it said.
Women play significant roles, particularly in drug dealing and loan collection, but are not allowed to work outside the home. Daughters are removed from school once they get their first period.
Romantic relationships with non-Sinti women are seen as dangerous and barely tolerated, the report said.
Cerreoni was one such woman. The ex-wife of Massimiliano Casamonica, who turned state witness after years in which she said she was controlled, belittled and threatened by the family.
"They ruined my life... I hadn't just married Massimiliano, but the whole clan," she told the court last year.
When she tried to break free, "They kidnapped me. They threatened to dissolve me in acid."
She eventually manage to flee, along with her children.
Her testimony has been key for investigators long hampered by difficulties in understanding the Casamonica, who speak in a mix of Sinti, the regional dialect of Abbruzzo, and Roman slang.
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi vows not to let up the fight against the Casamonica crime family Alberto PIZZOLI AFP/File
"How big a blow this verdict is to the clan is yet to be seen, but one thing is clear: it certainly no longer has the great cockiness, the impunity, it once enjoyed," Chiesa said.
© 2021 AFP
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