Colombia: The painstaking process to remove landmines, restore security

Training for demining operations in the Departments of Cauca, Caqueta and Meta, Colombia. (Credit: J.M. Vargas/Handicap International)

After decades of armed conflict, Colombia has the second highest rate of landmine victims in the world. Handicap International is one organization working remove such mines to prevent disability and restore security in the country’s most vulnerable communities.

The Colombian government signed an historic peace agreement in November with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the months that followed, Handicap International became one of four official humanitarian demining actors in the country.

The organization’s head of demining operations in Colombia, Adérito Ismael, told Humanosphere that the burden largely falls on indigenous communities and civilians living in remote rural areas – the same populations that often lack adequate health structures and rehabilitation care.

“These are people that live off the land,” Ishmael said. “And if they are living with mines on the ground, this holds back development in the country. This affects every community.”
The organization launched a multi-year demining operation earlier this year. The task ahead is daunting; thousands of landmines were planted across swaths of the country during the half-century conflict, with landmines thought to be present in 31 of the country’s 32 regions.
After Afghanistan, Colombia has the second-highest number of landmine casualties, with more than 11,500 people killed or maimed by landmines since 1990, according to government figures. Handicap International says many of these victims are children, who are particularly vulnerable to stumbling across homemade mines made with empty glass bottles or plastic tubes filled with amoniac.

“In some parts of the world, mothers are afraid their kids will go out and come back with a small injury because they were playing football,” Ishmael said. “Here, I mean, the rumors are making mothers afraid that their children will go out and come back with no legs, or not come back at all.”

Jemerson, 12, lost his left hand in 2014 from a mine left during the country’s armed conflict. (Credit: J.M. Vargas/Handicap International)

Earlier this year, Colombian government officials said the country aims to remove all landmines and other explosives by 2021. But, according to a report by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the country is “not on track” to meet the deadline. Colombia’s mountainous and jungle terrain makes mine clearance difficult, Ishmael said, and many communities are skeptical of the demining teams that enter their territories.

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“No one is trusting anyone,” Ishmael said. “So if you’re a humanitarian organization doing demining, you have a better chance of gaining the trust of certain parts of the community than if you come in with police uniforms, or military uniforms.”

Handicap International officials said they make it a priority to train women and people from indigenous communities where mine clearance is carried out. These team members are especially valuable, Ishmael said, because they are aware of the cultural sensitivities and are able to gain the trust of villagers, who tell them where the mines are.

Still, demining work is slow. Declaring a territory mine-free is a painstaking process, requiring each area to be mapped and then meticulously examined before it can be declared safe. Some experts estimate that it will take the country at least a decade to be mine-free.

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Ishmael said that because the database of mines in the country is based on reports from previously restricted areas, the number of explosives is likely far greater than estimates currently suggest.

“For the time being, we don’t have a clear picture of the mines in the country,” he said. “How complicated that will be for our work in the future, I’m not sure, but in the next few months … we will have [a]better idea.”

In Colombia, Handicap International receives support from the US Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, and provides assistance to victims including rehabilitation support, access to education and employment. The organization also works to ensure that disability issues are taken into account in public policies, and educates communities about the risk of mines and other explosive remnants of war.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com