The race to clear Colombia's landmines

SAN CARLOS — Sergeant Juan Carlos Ruiz’s boots trod carefully up a hillside thick with bright green vegetation and dotted with abandoned homes. Three months ago, he would have been dodging mines. Today, he tries to avoid stomping over the budding bean plants in front of a vacant home.

The home used to belong to a rebel commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Ruiz and his squadron of deminers found a ring of explosives buried around the house. “In the case that the military attacked the house, it would’ve gone off,” said Ruiz.

The dangers that were removed here remain buried in tens of thousands of hillsides across the country. Landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were planted several years ago by illegal armed groups are endangering the lives of displaced people trying to return to their farmlands and homes. And their increased use by the guerillas is making more landmine victims of soldiers and civilians in current battlefields.

“We’re clearing mines at the same time as more are being planted in other parts of the country. We’re attending to victims at the same time that new communities are being affected by this phenomenon,” said Andres Davila, director of the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Action against Antipersonnel Mines.

Colombia is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world: It claimed at least 8,081 victims of explosive devices between 1990 and October of this year, according to the presidential program. Casualties have increased since 2002.

A soldier searches for landmines.
(Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

Given this unfortunate fame, Colombia seemed an appropriate host for this week’s review conference in Cartagena of the 10-year-old Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of antipersonnel mines. Colombia hopes the 100-country conference will put the spotlight on the increasing need for mine action in the host country.

“A landmine is a perfect soldier: It doesn’t eat, it doesn’t ask for vacation, it doesn’t need to rest and it is active for 30 years,” said Lt. Colonel Mauricio Moreno, commander of the School of Military Engineers.

And these “perfect soldiers” are dispersed across all but one of Colombia’s 32 departments.

Here in San Carlos, security has been restored for the most part, and thousands of peasants who fled turbulent years of fighting between the paramilitary, guerilla and armed forces want to return to their homes. But now, they must contend with another threat.

“In this moment, it’s not fear of the Self-Defense Forces … nor is it fear of the guerrilla. It’s the fear of mines,” said Emma Alzate, who was displaced from the hamlet of La Mirandita to San Carlos and lost two husbands due to fighting. “This is the principle problem we have now in the hamlets of San Carlos.”

Alzate is too afraid to return to La Mirandita before it is cleared of mines. Instead, she visits occasionally to check on the farm she fled nine years ago and greet neighbors who are slowly returning and starting life over among skeletons of homes overtaken by nature and marked with bullet holes. She treads carefully along the muddy footpath, pointing out where residents had found mines.

Two weeks ago, the 11-year-old son of resident Aura Rosa Londonio told her he had found a bottle next to the path and couldn’t manage to take the syringe out. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you leave it still, that can kill you!’” Londonio told her son in alarm.

Her family had been warned not to enter the now-mined La Mirandita, but like for many other displaced, trying to make a go at working, mined farmland was a better option than trying to survive in the big cities.

“It’s necessity that makes them go back and stay there. They are willing to face everything: hunger, the problems of mines, which is number one,” said Fernando Pamplona, one of 146 landmine victims from San Carlos and president of their association. Pamplona knows: He stepped on a mine after he returned to San Carlos because he couldn’t survive displaced elsewhere in the country.

As many return to their homes with the risk of suffering Pamplona’s fate, or choose to wait what could be years for mine clearance, activists say the government needs to prioritize mine action. The challenge is only getting bigger: Explosive devices are being used with increasing frequency by an embattled FARC to counteract their dwindling capacity, according to military officials.

That means an ever-growing job for the deminers. Back on the hillside in eastern Antioquia, one of country’s most mine-littered regions, Corporal Dario Mosquera crouches on his knees and carefully pokes a metal stick in the grass searching for the top of a syringe, a detonation pin or an activation cable. He keeps his cool despite the burning sun and heavy protective gear — careless hands and haste could get him killed. “Maybe we only advance one meter in a day, but we have to do it without rushing so that it’s totally cleared, said Mosquera from behind a plastic visor.

Painstakingly working on a one-by-three-foot section at a time, his unit has spent more than two months clearing a mere pathway from a cluster of abandoned homes to the main road so that residents who fled violence about a decade ago can return.

“This is not Angola. This is not Afghanistan,” said Alvaro Jimenez, president of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines. “Colombia is a middle-income country that has the resources to attend more to victims.” Jimenez says the government should dedicate more funds to rehabilitating victims and mine clearance to prevent more victims.

Colombia plans to double the 250 military dedicated to humanitarian mine clearance by 2014 and is exploring how foreign deminers could bolster efforts.

There are many who are waiting for their arrival. Alzate hopes Sergeant Ruiz’s squadron will reach her community within the year so that she can return.

“I want people to be able to return peacefully to La Mirandita. So they can clean their homes and plant their yucca, maize and plantain. This would make everyone happy,” said Alzate. “This is what I want La Mirandita to be.”