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She's 12. A rocket took her leg. She defines the pain and resilience of Yemen

Shaimaa Ali Ahmed, 12, lost her leg at age 6 after happening upon an unexploded rocket. Yemeni children like her bear an outsized burden from the civil war, where land mines and ordnance litter the landscape.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Shaimaa Ali Ahmed, 12, lost her leg at age 6 after happening upon an unexploded rocket. Yemeni children like her bear an outsized burden from the civil war, where land mines and ordnance litter the landscape.

TAIZ, Yemen – Twelve-year-old Shaimaa Ali Ahmed waits patiently in the crammed waiting room of a prosthetics center in Taiz, Yemen, as children and soldiers with amputations squeeze by to get to their appointments. Shaimaa and her doctor struggle to find an empty spot at the center to get started on her physical therapy session.

The prosthetics center in the frontline city of Taiz sees hundreds of new patients each year, requiring a range of different types of limbs.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
The prosthetics center in the frontline city of Taiz sees hundreds of new patients each year, requiring a range of different types of limbs.

Finally, a set of parallel bars opens up in a corner. Shaimaa walks back and forth between them, first holding on to the bars, then without touching them.

She moves quickly but with an uneven gait, because prosthetics with joints at the knee aren't available here, her doctor explains. Shaimaa's youth and small size have helped her adapt.

"There's no way she could even walk like this if she were older, because her amputation is above the knee in her upper femur area," says Dr. Muna Hasan.

Shaimaa Ali Ahmed, 12, stands in a prosthetics center in Taiz. Her rehab is grueling, but she promised her parents she would not give up.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Shaimaa Ali Ahmed, 12, stands in a prosthetics center in Taiz. Her rehab is grueling, but she promised her parents she would not give up.

Here in this city on the frontlines of Yemen's long-running civil war, Shaimaa is just one of the civilians who will be living with the war's fallout for the rest of their lives. As the nearly decade-long conflict appears to be slowing down, places like this prosthetics clinic offer a glimpse at the challenge that awaits them.

Shaimaa lost her leg in 2017 when she was only 6 years old. She was playing outside with her friends at night when they came across an unexploded rocket.

"Suddenly, I saw something flash. At that time, I didn't even know what an explosion was," she says. "Then I found myself at the hospital the next day with my mom, and she told me that my leg was gone from my upper thigh."

Left: The doctor, Muna Hasan, adjusts Shaimaa Ali Ahmed's prosthetic before she begins physical therapy. Right: Ali Ahmed stands on the adjusted prosthetic to begin. The clinic lacks limbs with knee joints.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Left: The doctor, Muna Hasan, adjusts Shaimaa Ali Ahmed's prosthetic before she begins physical therapy. Right: Ali Ahmed stands on the adjusted prosthetic to begin. The clinic lacks limbs with knee joints.

It has been a tough recovery since. Shaimaa says she got through it by working hard because she promised her parents she wouldn't give up even as the war raged around her.

"I still feel scared when I am outdoors but try to be calm. It's better now. We used to constantly hear the sounds of missiles or gunfire. Now it's rare."

"I want the international community to help us end this war so that we can rebuild our country," she says, adding that she hopes to become a women's rights lawyer.

Shaimaa Ali Ahmed begins her physical therapy at the encouragement of her doctor (right). Her gait is uneven, but she moves quickly along the parallel bars.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Shaimaa Ali Ahmed begins her physical therapy at the encouragement of her doctor (right). Her gait is uneven, but she moves quickly along the parallel bars.

Yemen sank into civil war in 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the government, backed by Saudi Arabia, and sparked a war. Houthi rockets and Saudi-led airstrikes have killed thousands of Yemenis. Experts say there are about 2 million land mines, mostly laid by the Houthis, along with unexploded ordnance scattered around the country.

The problem is especially severe in Taiz and other nearby frontline areas. Taiz city is divided in half, with the Houthis controlling a swath that includes most of the factories and resources such as drinking water. A majority of the city's population lives in the area under Saudi-led coalition control. The two sides are separated by a no-man's land littered with Houthi mines, and traveling from one side to the other takes 6-8 hours over precarious mountain roads.

Former soldier Muhammad Fahad Alshaibani waits to test out a new prosthetic being built for him at the center.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Former soldier Muhammad Fahad Alshaibani waits to test out a new prosthetic being built for him at the center.

"The children are suffering a lot because of land mines. And we are always seeing amputation cases multiple times a week, sometimes daily," says Dr Mansour al-Wazi'iy, the director of the prosthetic center.

In the first half of this year, he says, the center received 400 new cases of people with amputations. More than 100 were children.

Al-Wazi'iy knows there are many more who need help in the area.

"We are giving our address and phone numbers to anyone who needs prosthetics. But sometimes we are facing difficulties because of the blockade. And those children are not able to come because of it," he says.

Dr. Mansour al-Wazi'iy, director of the prosthetics center, sits at his desk. This year, the center received 400 new cases of amputations. More than 100 of them were children.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Dr. Mansour al-Wazi'iy, director of the prosthetics center, sits at his desk. This year, the center received 400 new cases of amputations. More than 100 of them were children.

In 2022, negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Houthi militants helped lower tensions and reduce the fighting. But that has not had much of an effect on the needs of the Yemeni population, according Mariam Adnan, a child protection specialist with Save the Children based in Sana'a, the Houthi-controlled capital of Yemen. Aid groups are still trying to provide food, safe drinking water and medical care to over 20 million people in need.

Children are particularly vulnerable as they play outside, walk to school or search for water, Adnan says. Even during a ceasefire that lasted much of last year, a child was killed or injured by mines on average every two days, the highest rate in five years.

"We were expecting during the truce that the numbers will decrease. But for children injured by land mines, the numbers were increasing massively, unfortunately, during 2022," Adnan says.

Prosthetic limbs in various stages of construction line a work bench at the prosthetics center.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Prosthetic limbs in various stages of construction line a work bench at the prosthetics center.

And with a collapsed health system and severe shortage in international humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations, it's become much harder to provide lifesaving help that victims need. Adnan says children injured by mines and explosives often die before they can get care.

"It's really devastating," she says. "Sometimes we feel we are paralyzed because we cannot provide the support, and it's not on us. It is because of the situation and the lack of funding."

Children like Shaimaa and thousands of others who have lost limbs will need mental and physical support throughout their lives, said al-Wazi'iy, as new patients continue to pour into the cramped prosthetic center.

Shaimaa Ali Ahmed begins a check-up with her doctor, Muna Hasan. "I want the international community to help us end this war so that we can rebuild our country," says the 12-year-old says, who hopes to become a women's rights lawyer.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Shaimaa Ali Ahmed begins a check-up with her doctor, Muna Hasan. "I want the international community to help us end this war so that we can rebuild our country," says the 12-year-old says, who hopes to become a women's rights lawyer.

Among them is a mother with her 3-year-old son, who lost his leg in a mine explosion this year and now has to wear a prosthetic leg. His eyes downcast, the child slowly tries to walk, clutching tightly to his mother's hand.

It's a visible reminder of how, even as the war lingers at a stalemate, Yemenis will live with its legacy for years to come.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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