Landmines: A Survivor’s Tale

This issue may be outdated. Click here to view the most recent issue.

I am a bilateral lower leg amputee as a result of a 1993 landmine accident in Somalia. Many readers of the Journal of Mine Action know the horrible landmine casualty statistics and facts. I hope that you will also contribute to making the world safer for all of us and help prevent similar stories.

The Toyota Landcruiser a few hours after Dr. Rutherford’s accident near Lugh, Somalia, in 1993.
by Dr. Ken Rutherford, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Southwest Missouri State University

I went to Somalia with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as part of the international humanitarian intervention. I hope that my Somali landmine experience can provide insights into the pain and suffering of the tens of thousands of landmine victims, both dead and alive, around the world. It expresses a real-life landmine nightmare. I first detailed my account in a testimony at the “Global Landmine Crisis” hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1994, when Senator Patrick Leahy and his staff, notably Tim Reiser, fought hard to alleviate the negative humanitarian effects of landmine use, including providing assistance to war victims, such as people injured by mines.

On December 16, 1993, my life was changed forever. My credit union staff in Lugh (located in the Gedo region, near the Ethiopian and Kenyan borders) decided to conduct site visits to legitimate lime producers whose manufacturing locations were several miles outside of town. The four lime producer applicants got in the Landcruiser back seat, while the three directors and the union manager, Abdulahi Farah Ali, got in the second row. I sat in the front seat between my driver Abdual Raman and Somali counterpart Mohamed Hassan Duale.

About 10 minutes into our excursion, we were coming to a ridge of a small gully. Then the Landcruiser lurched forward a little, and the inside filled with dust. I slowly looked at Duale, whose face was covered with dust, then down to my feet. I saw a white bone sticking out where my right foot used to be. At first, I wondered if that was my bone or Duale’s. It was mine.

My first instinct was to get out of the Landcruiser. But my lower legs were not working. I grabbed the steering wheel to pull myself out of the car, hitting the ground with my back. My hand-held radio landed several feet from me at the base of the passenger door behind the driver’s side door. Fortunately, before getting in the Landcruiser at the credit union, I had attached my radio to my belt, rather than the usual practice of carrying it in my book bag at the base of my feet.

I crawled for the radio, whereupon Abdulahi handed it to me. I remember saying four things after making the introductory call—“Kilo Romeo for Kilo Tango” (Kilo Romeo was my call sign, while Kilo Tango was the call sign for Ken Turk, IRC Lugh Team Leader)—“I’ve run over a landmine. I’m bleeding. I’m O-positive. Send for an airplane.”

Afterwards, I asked Abdulahi to open the door, but it would not open, so I then crawled the few feet back to the driver’s side door and used my arms to place my legs on the seat. Abdulahi adjusted my legs on the seat then tied tourniquets around both my ankles. A bone was sticking out where my right foot used to be. The actual foot itself was hanging by stretched skin towards my knee. Twice, I did a partial sit-up so that I could reach up and hit the bottom of my foot with the back of my hand, hoping that it would flip up and over onto the protruding bone. It kept on falling back down. My left foot was still attached. I had lost the fourth toe and top part of my foot. Like an X-ray, I could see the bones going to the remaining toes. Abdulahi, unhurt, stayed with me the whole time. During this time, I wasn’t feeling any pain, I just felt uncomfortable. I knew that I was in a serious accident and that my right foot was gone forever.

Dr. Rutherford on the Somali border several weeks before his accident. His driver, Abdual Raman, is sitting on the wall.

Laying there in the hot Somali sun on the hard sandy ground covered with sharp rocks with my mutilated, bloody feet on the driver’s seat—I had a smile on my face…

Up to this point, I never thought about dying, but I was thanking God for what a wonderful and blessed life I’d had. Great parents. The best of friends. The realization of a dream that I did the things that I wanted to do and that even what I was doing in Somalia was a dream. How many people have the opportunity to do what they dream of since childhood? What could be a better feeling than helping people start their lives again after the civil war? I enjoyed having the opportunity to physically visit each applicant’s project site and help them. Some days, I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid for what I was doing.

Soon, I spit up blood, and then I thought that due to possible internal injuries I could be dying and that every breath I took could be my last. The only sad thought I had was that I would not be able to marry Kim, my fiancée of two months and that we wouldn’t have children, who, I believed and hoped, would make a positive contribution to this world. I then resolved that if I could pace my strength, energy and mind until I reached medical care, that I would live. I started breathing slow and calming myself down. I never cried, screamed or moaned. As I spit up more blood and tried unsuccessfully to put my right foot back on, I asked God to let me live. I promised him that if I lived, I would pursue my real dreams: marrying Kim, having children with her and becoming a university professor. I looked up at Abdulahi and my other Somali staff and said that I enjoyed working with them and that we did our best.

I found out that help arrived around 30 minutes later. The first “rescuer” down the ridge was Ken. I asked him if he could put my right foot back on. I meant it in a humorous way because I already realized that it would be nearly impossible to have a normal foot again and that it hurt too much to cry.

He and the Somali rescuers picked me up in a cradle position, holding my legs and arms under the shoulders, and then placed me in the back of a white pickup truck with my head on the lap of an Islamic Fundamentalist soldier leaning against the back of the cab while holding my head and his machine gun. My left hand was held by another soldier sitting on the side of the pickup truck with his gun as well. I remember looking up and into his eyes, with both of us squeezing each others hands. Ken was trying to keep my right foot on the leg while trying to maintain his balance in the bouncing truck. I remember thinking how great it was that Somali Islamic Fundamentalists were trying to save my life. Only several hundred miles away, in Mogadishu, they were trying to kill Americans. Here they were going over the same road where I had hit a landmine to get me to the hospital.

Once I was placed in the truck, the pain set in fast. In the Lugh hospital courtyard I was loaded onto a metal roll-away cart, and taken into a medium-sized room. The room was full of Somali medical personnel, spectators and Tamera Morgan, an American nurse with extensive trauma experience. My forehead was being pressed down and men were holding down my arms in a cross position to keep me from moving too much. I kept struggling to deal with the pain and to try and raise myself so that I could look at my mutilated feet. I could not believe that they were so destroyed.

Senator Leahy and Tim Reiser of the Senate Foreign Operations sub-committee with Dr. Rutherford at the “Global Landmine Crisis” hearing.

About 30 minutes later, I was taken back out to the hospital courtyard, where the pickup truck had remained during my time at the hospital. Several men transferred me from the table to the truck. There was a roll bar across the back of the truck located above the tailgate. During the transfer, I grabbed it with both hands for support. Before the transfer, I had felt the large numbers of people that had crowded into the hospital courtyard and beyond. I told myself not to make a face of agony, pain, fear or suffering, but to present a face that everything was OK—no problems. I didn’t want them to think that I was just another American or international relief worker leaving out of fear or warning. Before the accident, I wanted to prove that Americans and Somalis could work productively and cooperatively together to provide many with a new start in life and that the events in Mogadishu between Americans and Somalis had no influence over our work.

Lying in the back of the pickup, I remember Somalis touching my legs and arms saying “sorry.” I thought to myself “Who is going to help these people? Who is going to continue the credit union work here? We have over 400 applications still to process for Lugh alone. Is this the end?”

On the flight to Nairobi, I only remember moaning and mumbling “Oh my God” so much from the pain that I thought the pilot must hate me since I was probably giving him a headache. In the plane, I almost died. To keep me alive, Tamera and a Belgium Doctor Joris Vandelanotte saved my life by not only giving wonderful emergency medical care, but also giving me blood from their own bodies by direct transfusions.

Upon arriving in Nairobi, I was transferred to one of eight beds in a large room at Nairobi Hospital. I started begging to save my right leg, knowing very well that it was gone, but trying to protect my left leg. I figured that if I let my right leg go easy, then it would be much easier for them to cut off my left. I was twisting and struggling from the pain. The professional, patient and efficient hospital staff then strapped both my arms stretched out to each side as if preparing for a crucifixion. The last thing I remember before the operation was a nurse apologizing as he cut away my maroon T-shirt—the one that I wore at my going away party in Colorado that my family and friends had given before my departure five months earlier.

I woke up with the medical staff’s hands holding down my shoulders explaining that they had to cut off my right leg to save my life. I asked if I still had my left. When someone said “yes,” I started saying the first of my many thank yous to the hospital staff.

Before my departure, the nurse wheeled Duale in. It was the first time we had seen each other—at least consciously, for I had seen him once on one of the metal carts at the Lugh Hospital—since the accident. He looked beat up. I remember his eyes being semi-closed. I stretched my left arm towards him, since I couldn’t roll over to give him my right. He took my hand, and we held each other’s hand.

I was flown to Geneva on an SOS evacuation fight. In the plane, I was laid on a stretcher with sheets covered by a belt. My head was several inches from the window. Every three hours I was allowed a morphine shot. That last hour went by so slowly. The pain was incredible.

The first scenes were of the northern Kenyan, Ethiopian and Sudanese deserts, vast expanses of open space. We stopped to refuel in Egypt and I was looking at our plane window at some Egyptian soldiers. I was thinking “What am I doing? I’m on a plane in Egypt; I’ve lost my right leg; my left leg is in jeopardy...and yesterday I was working and fine.” Our lives can change in a split second—anybody’s. Later, during the night, I could see the lights of Italian and Swiss cities.

The arrival in Geneva was at night. Out of my small window, I saw Kim, my father and Steve Richards, the IRC Executive Vice President, plus airport security guards and ambulance personnel. I gave the thumbs up through the window as the plane was coming to a stop. Once the door opened, Kim rushed on the plane. As I saw her coming in the hatch, I took off the oxygen mask…then we hugged.

I was immediately taken in an ambulance to the hospital. My first memories of the hospital were getting X-rays of my foot and then being put under. We did not know if I would come out with a foot or not. This was the first of three operations in five nights in Geneva to save my left foot. During my five-day stay in Geneva, I was in tremendous pain and agony. My father, Kim and Steve would visit several times each day. It was so great to see them—to be alive. Yet I was so tired of trying to cover up the pain that I was feeling. Moans would unconsciously come out of me, without my controlling the sound or timing.

On December 22, 1994, I was flown to Denver, Colorado, then transferred by ambulance to the Institute for Limb Preservation at Presbyterian/St. Lukes Hospital. Over the next six days, I had three more operations, led by orthopedic surgeon David Hahn, who had experience dealing with munitions and weapon injuries while serving as a U.S. Army doctor. I was lucky to have him on my team. The last operation lasted 12 hours. The doctors had used my stomach muscle to replace the lost foot tissue. They sewed the blood vessels together. They also moved the pinky toe to the place of my missing fourth toe. So far, I had been in four hospitals in four countries in one week, while going through seven operations on my left foot and the amputation of my right leg in 12 days in three countries. I was transferred to my fifth hospital, Boulder Community Hospital Mapleton Center, in mid-February. I remained there for three weeks.

Since that time, I have undergone four additional operations in two other hospitals on the left foot, including its amputation by another U.S. Army serviceman, Dr. Christopher Attinger, at Georgetown University Hospital. As a bilateral amputee with two prosthetic legs built by Charlie Crone at NASCOTT Rehabilitative services in Arlington, Virginia, and a service provider to several other American landmine survivors, I am able to play baseball, golf and soccer with my four children.

Nevertheless, the real point that I would like to make is: what about the other landmine victims? I am so lucky. I am lucky to be an American—to have the best medical care, therapy and prosthetics available. Thus far, my medical care costs are in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand dollars. What about the Somalis who are hurt by landmines? Who is going to help them? Who is going to pay for their care and therapy? There are thousands of victims around the world in places where having one’s legs and arms is key to economic survival. They are the farmers, herders, traders and merchants, who need their limbs to work. These people do not have access to any medical facilities, let alone any of the quality that we have here, and they cannot quickly transfer from one career to another.

I was able to contact help by my hand-held radio. My employer had the organizational capabilities to get me evacuated to receive excellent medical treatment. Excellent medical and rehabilitative support have been instrumental in my recovery. Most people do not have such blessings. As you have learned, the medical consequences of mine injuries require prompt and repeated surgical care, not so readily available to civilians in many parts of the world.

From the moment my vehicle hit the landmine, I found myself in a position that is not familiar to me in my role as a humanitarian aid worker. I had become a victim and disabled. Like so many others who have been victimized, I found myself questioning my life. As I struggled to save my remaining leg and recover, I discovered an overpowering wave of support and assistance both for myself and for my family that has me humbled, and I have realized that most mine victims are not so lucky.

In 1997, I started an organization, the Landmine Survivors Network, with another American landmine survivor, Jerry White, to help landmine survivors help themselves, primarily by helping them to recover and reclaim their lives. We traveled the world trying to figure out how to help, which included supporting the inclusion of victim assistance language in the Mine Ban Treaty (Article Six, Paragraph Three).

Dr. Rutherford and his fiancée Kim Schwers on vacation after his accident. Kim and Ken are now married and have four children.

I have never been bitter or depressed about my condition. On the contrary, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to assist so many to help start their lives again after the civil war. I am also grateful to God, who gave me a second chance to live and answered my requests that I made in the Somalia desert while I simultaneously believed I was dying and was struggling to stay alive. I was able to marry Kim and have a family, and I became a university professor.

*All photos courtesy of the author.

Contact Information

Dr. Kenneth Rutherford
Landmine Studies Coordinator
Department of Political Science
Southwest Missouri State University
Springfield, Missouri 65804
Tel: (417) 836-6428