Hero Stories | Silent crisis of amputees shatters dreams and steals childhoods of thousands in war-torn Yemen

ByHisham Allam

Hero Stories | Silent crisis of amputees shatters dreams and steals childhoods of thousands in war-torn Yemen

Imagine losing a limb not in the immediate chaos of a years-long war, but amidst a broken healthcare system struggling to serve its most vulnerable citizens. This is the harsh reality that Abdel Nasser Ahmed Aklan faced, a reality that propelled him from despair to become a beacon of hope for countless others in war-torn Yemen.

With an estimated 162,304 essential services denied to people with disabilities during the conflict, including 55,400 critical health services encompassing surgery, medications, medical supplies, examinations, physical and speech therapy, and the provision of prosthetic limbs and other assistive devices, Aklan’s story paints a stark picture of suffering beyond the direct casualties of war. Unlike thousands of others, he did not lose his leg to a landmine or a bomb, but to a system that is failing its people. Yet, from his loss emerged Hope for Limb Amputees, an organization battling not just the physical limitations of amputation, but the systemic challenges that deny even basic mobility and dignity to Yemen’s amputee population.

Join us as we delve into Aklan’s inspiring journey, explore the silent crisis unfolding in Yemen, and witness the relentless fight for hope amidst seemingly insurmountable odds. This interview is not just about statistics; it’s about the forgotten stories of amputees struggling to navigate a war-torn landscape, the young boy yearning to play again, and the daily battle for normality in a city built for those with two legs. It’s a call to action, a reminder that every prosthetic fitted, every life transformed, is a victory against the silent suffering of Yemen and a step towards a brighter future.

Development Aid: Mr. Aklanis, thank you for joining us today. Your journey from a man who walked on two legs to becoming an amputee is both deeply personal and profoundly inspiring. Could you take us back to that pivotal moment and share the emotions and challenges you faced during that transformative experience?

Abdel Nasser: Five hours. Three hundred minutes. Eighteen thousand seconds. In the blink of an eye, my life was forever altered. The date is etched in my memory – February 3, 2010 – a day that marked the beginning of my journey into the unknown. I can still recall the stark hospital corridors, the hushed whispers of medical staff, and the overwhelming sense of fear and uncertainty that gripped my heart. As I lay on the operating table, awaiting the inevitable, I grappled with a myriad of emotions – fear, grief, and a profound sense of loss. The realization that I would emerge from surgery as an amputee was a bitter pill to swallow yet, amidst the darkness, there flickered a glimmer of hope – a determination to defy the odds and reclaim my sense of purpose.

Development Aid: That feeling of isolation and vulnerability must have been immense. How did you, and others like you, cope with this new reality?

Abdel Nasser: Grief, anger, disbelief – they all dance within you. But amidst the darkness, there’s a flicker of hope. You see others battling similar demons, sharing their stories, supporting each other. You realize you’re not alone. That’s what drove me to Hope for Amputees. We share our pain, yes, but more importantly, we share our resilience.

Development Aid: Hope for Amputees is a beacon in a country ravaged by conflict. Can you tell us about the specific challenges you face in providing essential support to amputees in Yemen?

Abdel Nasser: The challenges are numerous, each layer chipping away at our ability to help. The healthcare system had witnessed a significant decline even before 2014 when the war started. The war has further decimated it. The health system is completely worn out and has collapsed. The siege prevents raw materials from entering the country and their cost has skyrocketed – a grim consequence of war when nations stagnate instead of growing.

Prosthetics are expensive, and with our currency collapsing, they’re becoming luxuries that many can’t afford. Imagine navigating streets without proper ramps, and buildings without elevators, all while battling the phantom pain and psychological trauma. It’s a constant struggle.

Development Aid: You mentioned the war. How has the conflict directly impacted the number of amputees and the scale of your organization’s efforts?

Abdel Nasser: The numbers are heartbreaking. Airstrikes, landmines, explosions – they leave behind a trail of shattered lives. Each blast creates new amputees, stretching our resources thin. It’s like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom. We offer physical therapy and vocational training, but the sheer enormity of the crisis is overwhelming.

There are no official statistics on the number of amputees in Yemen. The Center for Prosthetics and Physical Therapy in Sana’a, a government center, receives an average of 300 to 500 cases daily due to the war from those seeking medical services or prosthetic limbs. No one discloses the numbers of amputees among the war victims, treating this as a war secret.

Development Aid: Despite the challenges, Hope for Amputees continues to offer hope. Can you share a story of someone whose life has been transformed by your organization?

Abdel Nasser: There are countless stories, each etched in my memory. I remember Amina, a young girl who lost her leg in a bombing. She arrived at our center, withdrawn and fearful. Slowly, with therapy and a prosthetic, she started to walk again. The smile that bloomed on her face – that’s what keeps us going.

Development Aid: You mentioned the limited access to prosthetics in Yemen. Can you elaborate on the challenges faced by amputees and the efforts of Hope for Amputees to address these?

Abdel Nasser: At the time, with only one center serving a population of 30 million, the struggle for prosthetics was immense. Even today, despite the opening of additional centers (currently there are three government-run prosthetic centers), demand far exceeds the resources. The war has crippled our healthcare system, making prosthetics even more unaffordable for many. Hope for Amputees strives to bridge this gap, but we face numerous obstacles. Funding shortages due to the conflict limit our ability to provide prosthetics and physical therapy. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure further hinders mobility – buildings without elevators, streets devoid of safe lanes, and sidewalks lacking ramps create daily hurdles.

Development Aid: Mr. Aklanis, you mentioned witnessing the struggles of other amputees at the Sana’a prosthetics center. Could you share more about that experience and its impact on you?

Abdel Nasser: It was a profound moment of realization. At the center, amidst the hustle and bustle of patients seeking care, I felt the weight of collective suffering. I saw hundreds of individuals, young and old, each with their own story of loss and resilience. Among them was Abdulrahman, a young boy who had lost both his legs in a tragic accident while tending to his family’s sheep. His father had brought him from the distant Hajjah governorate, one of Yemen’s poorest regions, seeking hope amidst despair. I vividly recall Abdulrahman’s innocent question to his father, asking if he would ever be able to return to school and play with his friends. It was a moment that touched the hearts of everyone present, reminding us of the innocence stolen by conflict. The lack of access to proper prosthetics, inadequate infrastructure, and societal barriers often make returning to normality extremely difficult. At that moment, the weight of the situation crushed us all, and tears flowed freely. It was a powerful reminder of the stolen childhoods and shattered dreams caused by this conflict.

At that time, Yemen’s population numbered around 30 million, with just one center catering to the needs of amputees across the entire country. The overwhelming demand for prosthetics and rehabilitation services spoke volumes about the scale of the crisis we faced. Despite the challenges, the center remained a beacon of hope for countless individuals, offering a glimmer of light amidst the darkness of war.

Development Aid: The situation in Yemen is complex and challenging. What message do you have for the international community regarding the plight of amputees and the broader humanitarian crisis?

Abdel Nasser: The international community cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering in Yemen. Amputees are just one face of the crisis, a symbol of the collective pain inflicted by war. We need your support, your voices raised, and your resources extended. Help us to provide essential services, advocate for inclusivity, and rebuild shattered lives. Remember, this is not an isolated incident, but a consequence of conflict. Only through collective action can we bring peace and healing to Yemen.

Development Aid: Mr. Aklanis, your courage and determination are an inspiration. As we conclude, what are your hopes for the future of Yemen and its people?

Abdel Nasser: My hope is simple: peace. Peace to allow children to dream without fear of explosions, peace for amputees to walk freely, and peace for Yemen to heal and rebuild. It’s a long road but, with each prosthetic fitted, each life transformed, we inch closer to that dream. And that, ultimately, is what keeps us going with unwavering belief in a brighter tomorrow.

Note: The Yemen conflict, which began in 2015, has triggered a severe humanitarian crisis. Over 4.56 million Yemenis are displaced, with 234,000 new displacements in 2022. Furthermore, 6.7 million lack adequate shelter, and over 80% of the population live below the poverty line due to the economy having been halved. Food insecurity affects 17 million Yemenis, including 3.2 million who face acute shortages. The UN estimated that by the start of 2022, the conflict in Yemen had caused over 377,000 deaths, with 60% resulting from hunger, lack of healthcare, and unsafe water. In total, 21.6 million Yemenis urgently require humanitarian aid, highlighting the severity of the crisis.