While hiking in Israel with two American friends in 1984, Jerry White suddenly collapsed to the ground, screaming, “My leg, my leg!” Little did this 20-year-old from Cohasset, Massachusetts, realize, he had stepped on a landmine. What began as a warm and sunny day at the edge of the Golan Heights became a life-threatening nightmare.
As White lay on the ground, losing blood rapidly and in frightful pain, his friends yelled to him to not move. White’s right foot was blown apart and bones were protruding from his left leg. The three young men had had no warning that they were entering a minefield with explosives waiting to cause damage.
Painstakingly, they managed to lift him up and transport him to the nearest hospital. After undergoing surgery, developing gangrene, then going through three more surgeries, followed by rehabilitation at a hospital, he finally returned home.
“Israel is the leading trauma-recovery center in the world, with state-of-the-art equipment and medicine,” says White, now co-founder and executive director of Landmine Survivors Network (LSN). “During my recovery and rehabilitation, it was difficult to see where I would fit in the world I had known,” he said.
White recalls a landmine survivor who visited him in the hospital offering advice: “You have a choice: stay a victim or be a survivor,” he said, as he pointed to his own leg. “Your problem is not down there, but up here (pointing to his head) and in here (pointing to his heart).”
White realized at that moment that life isn’t over after losing a leg, and with his newly gained inspiration, White chose to survive.
In 1995, White worked on a landmine ban movement. In 1997, with co-founder Ken Rutherford, he launched the Landmine Survivors Network (LSN) as a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering landmine victims to reclaim their lives through programs in health, economic opportunities and human rights.
“Ken Rutherford, another American survivor and double-amputee, and I started LSN because, frankly, the world was ignoring the plight of mine victims. Most were dying, and fewer than 10 percent had access to rehabilitation and medical care,” says White.
Landmine Survivors Network now operates peer-support groups in seven heavily-mined countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Columbia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Jordan, Mozambique and Vietnam. Their goal is to work with other partners to remove all mines in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola and Iraq.
This dynamic organization has attracted such notable supporters as Jordan’s Queen Noor, Sir Paul McCarthy and the late Princess Diana, who was instrumental in drawing worldwide attention to this worthy cause before her life was cut short by a tragic accident. In August 1997, White and Rutherford escorted Princess Diana on a humanitarian mission to Bosnia.
A letter she wrote afterward to Jerry White stated that, “The victims I met and their senselessly inflicted injuries have stiffened my resolve to ensure that their needs for care and support are not overlooked …”
White and Rutherford gained great satisfaction when the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which they both worked on, along with others, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
White notes, “We also helped negotiate the global Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, which included provisions to help mine victims.” To date, more than 150 countries have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, prohibiting the use, manufacture, stockpiling or transfer of anti-personnel mines. The United States is among 40 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, Libya, Burma, Syria and Cuba, which have not signed the treaty.
In 2002, McCartney and Lady Heather Mills presented Jerry White and Ken Rutherford with the Adopt-A-Minefield Humanitarian Award for their leadership in the global landmine movement.
Vietnam is littered with more than 300,000 tons of landmines and unexploded ordinance left from the Vietnam War. More than 200 people are killed or injured each year. Most victims have limited medical assistance. In Afghanistan, landmines buried during the course of 23 years of civil wars and Soviet occupation kill or maim 100 people a month.
According to UNICEF estimates, 30 to 40 percent of landmine victims are children; in Cambodia, half of those affected are children. Most landmine survivors and their families live on US$ 1 per day. A growing child needs an artificial limb every six to 12 months; an adult needs a new prosthesis every three to five years.
Jerry White’s mission is to educate the public to hear the voices of these innocent victims. In early 2004, Jerry White, along with Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing and other cast members of the US television series West Wing gave a poignant reading from Raising Our Voices, a play about landmine survivors.
These talented actors served as the voices of men, women and children from Cambodia, Afghanistan and Somalia who have lost limbs. One “voice” was Juan Antonio Carbajal, living in El Salvador.
During the country’s civil war, he heard a man who had stepped on a mine screaming for help. No one ran to his aid because the man was in a dangerous location, but Carbajal couldn’t walk away. As he lifted the man up, another landmine exploded. The injured man died immediately, and Carbajal lost both legs.
Seleshi Beyene, living in Ethiopia, was 12 years old when he found a land mine by the riverbank. Not knowing what it was, he reached out and it blew up in his hands. He lost both hands and an eye. Once home from a three-month hospital stay, he lost his family, too. His father was angry that he now had a “damaged” son. His family abandoned him and he was left to fend for himself.
Younes Srour Wardat, living in Jordan, was walking in an olive grove when he stepped on a landmine. Lying in the grove bleeding and in pain, he realized his foot was gone. Fortunately, someone heard his screams and drove him to the nearest hospital. After surgery to amputate part of his leg, he slowly realized he would survive.
Worldwide, only 10 percent of landmine survivors have access to health care and rehabilitation. Many face prejudice and rejection daily. Landmine Survivors are helping these victims of injustice change how they see themselves. The organization works hard to bring them hope, dignity, and a reason to live and make a difference.
When White and Rutherford started LSN, there were up to 80 million mines and military debris buried in more than 80 countries. Every 22 minutes someone was being killed or maimed by mines, including thousands of women and children each year. Something had to be done to stop the proliferation of the weapon and to help the victims rebuild their lives.
“LSN is the only international organization created by and for survivors to help victims get legs, get jobs and get on with their lives,” says White.
For more information:
Landmine Survivor’s Network