Confronted by the headlines out of Yemen in recent weeks, it's easy to lose sight of everyday Yemenis working to provide for their families and to make their country a better place. During my recent tour at the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a I had the privilege of getting to know many of them. Among the most inspiring were members of the Yemeni Association for Landmine Survivors (YALS) -- a remarkable organization that, with U.S. support, provides survivors of past conflicts with job skills, medical services, community, and a more hopeful future.
As the world's single largest financial contributor to post-conflict efforts to remove landmines and unexploded munitions, the United States has delivered more than $1.5 billion in aid since 1993 to reduce risks in nearly 50 countries through the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action Program. In Yemen, we have had an active demining program for more than 10 years, working together in partnership to safely remove landmines and unexploded munitions left over from a series of conflicts between 1962 and 1994.
As many as 592 villages located in 19 of Yemen's 20 governorates were affected by these "explosive remnants of war.” The United States has provided about $14 million to help reduce risks to the vast majority of these communities in partnership with the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center.
But survey and clearance operations are only half of the story: U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action also supports rehabilitation programs such as YALS, which serve those injured by landmines and unexploded munitions.
For a country, lingering threats from landmines and unexploded ordnance can continue to claim lives and hinder development long after the end of a conflict. On a personal level, the impact can be as complex as it is heartbreaking. As YALS Director Saleh Al-Dhaiani told me, one of the major problems facing Yemeni landmine survivors is that people assume that they will never marry, find jobs, or lead normal lives.
YALS's mission is to rehabilitate landmine survivors physically and psychologically. It gives survivors job training and microfinance loans to start businesses, links survivors with government services, such as monthly stipends, and provides them with medical care, including prosthetic limbs. It has 23 staff members, almost all of whom are landmine survivors.
Among them is Arwa, a 20-year-old woman with an irrepressible smile and an iron will. After she lost her legs to a landmine at age nine, her family saw her as a burden, despairing that she would never be supported by a husband and never dreaming that she would be able to support herself. Today, she supports both herself and her family, through income she earns as YALS secretary and performing data entry at a local hospital.
Arwa calls YALS a "backbone” that gives landmine survivors strength and support. “We were scattered all over Yemen, feeling isolated and alone in our small villages, thinking we were the only ones with this disability,” she told me. “Then YALS brought us together and provided us with jobs and a community. That's why the association means everything to us."
Another YALS success story is a young woman named Labiba, who lost an eye, leg, and hand to a landmine in the capital city of Sana'a a decade ago. When she first joined the association, she was so shy about her disabilities that she didn't even attend the meetings. Now there's no sign of the shy young woman she once was. When I met her, she couldn't stop talking about her upcoming wedding, which she organized entirely on her own. Labiba told me, “YALS has given me a lot. I used to be a burden to my family, but now my life has totally changed.”
Of the approximately 2,600 registered landmine survivors in Yemen, YALS has aided 260 since its founding in 2006. One factor that complicates YALS's work is that 90 percent of survivors are in tiny villages in far-flung rural areas. However, a new $208,000 U.S. grant delivered through the UN Development Programme will allow YALS to begin assisting an additional 100 more survivors this year. The State Department looks forward to enhancing our efforts with YALS and other partners to improve the lives of more landmine survivors in Yemen and other countries affected by explosive remnants of war in the years to come.