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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.