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U.N. Medical Airlift Of Yemenis Offers Glimmer Of Hope In Humanitarian Crisis


To rare good news from the war in Yemen - for two years, the United Nations has been negotiating for permission to evacuate people who need urgent medical care, trying to get them on planes out of Yemen to other countries where they can receive treatment. Well, permission has now been granted, and the first flight has taken off from Sanaa airport. Only a small group of patients so far, but it is offering a glimmer of hope for those still stuck in Yemen. Lise Grande is the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, and she joins me now from Sanaa.

Lise Grande, welcome.

LISE GRANDE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: You were at the airport for this first flight. Tell me about it. How did it unfold? How many people were on it?

GRANDE: So the very first flight left yesterday, and there were six high-priority patients - most of them were children - who boarded the plane. Many of them were traveling with their families. And they left Sanaa airport, and they traveled to Amman. As soon as they arrived in Jordan, they were then taken by ambulances to medical facilities. And a number of the patients starting today are already receiving treatment that they haven't been able to receive in Yemen for the last four years.

KELLY: You said most of them were children. Can you tell me one or two stories - who these people are, what kind of medical conditions they're wrestling with?

GRANDE: There were two young children, both boys, who are waiting for kidney transplants. Both of them are 13. One of the boys we are very worried about because his condition was deteriorating very quickly. We knew that if we couldn't get him on the plane and get him to a facility that could do a transplant that his life was in danger. The other young boy that was traveling for a kidney transplant, he was I have to say almost like a star for all of us. He was very young when he started to have problems with his kidney. He, for years, has lived with this problem. And now, finally, he is in a facility with his family. His grandmother traveled with him, and she will be giving him her kidney. And we expect that operation to start very soon. It was just wonderful...

KELLY: Oh, wow.

GRANDE: ...To see him with his family get on that plane and get to a place where he's got a chance to survive.

KELLY: And the hope is there will be more flights. Do you know when the next one goes?

GRANDE: We are planning on bringing a larger plane so that we can take out more patients, and we expect that that will happen in just the next few days. We're confirming the flight arrangements as we speak. And we hope that very soon, the second plane can go and that many more planes will follow after.

KELLY: May I ask what was on your mind as you watched this plane lift off yesterday, having worked for so long to make that happen?

GRANDE: It was very emotional when we were all inside of the terminal, and the children were there with their families. When we watched the children and their family walk across the tarmac and get on the plane, it was a very emotional moment. And we knew that the children and their families were headed to Amman and, hopefully, to a better life. There was a cheer from all of us who were standing on the tarmac.

KELLY: Lise Grande, thank you.

GRANDE: Thank you.

KELLY: She is the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, talking there about the medical air bridge operation that has just brought the first group of patients from Yemen to Amman in Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "TRISTESSE GLOBALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.