Mine action in Colombia

Three deminers tell their stories

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Leonela, 19

Leonadia, 19, comes from La Union, a small village in Cauca. Here, she explains why she clears mines: “I wanted to be independent, leave home, and stand on my own two feet. I didn’t know anything about mines. I applied to be a mine clearance expert and did the one-month intensive training course. It’s my first job. We started working in La Venta, Cajibío, in July 2017. I cut the grass, prod the earth, and gradually move forward. It’s physical work. I know the risks but I tell myself everything’s going to be all right. It’s not always easy to share the kitchen, the tent, and toilets for six weeks, but we’re like a family. I’m proud of doing something to bring about peace in my country. I miss my boyfriend, but we call each other every day.”

 

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Virgilio, 39

Virgilio, 39, fixes you with his serious, slightly mischievous stare. He supervises HI’s team of mine clearance experts in the municipality of Cajibío (Cauca, Colombia). It was a natural choice of career for Virgilio. “The country was very volatile when I was growing up. There was a lot of violence and it was very tense. I saw people maimed and wounded. My family and I were displaced by force twice - we had to leave Medellin and then Nariño. We had two hours to leave everything behind – our home, our plantations. Our animals were going to die. It was very hard. Today, I want to save lives and to help bring peace to my country. I started by working for an American mine clearance organization and, since 2017, for HI. When I tell people I clear mines, they say: “You’re crazy! You look for explosive devices in the ground without knowing exactly where they are!” I feel confident, though. The hardest thing is to be separated from my wife and son – I see them every six weeks. But I’m proud of my work and of helping restore land to indigenous communities and peasants.”

 

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Horacio, 43

“I come from the NASA indigenous community in Corinto, Cauca. My wife, Francy, is a student. I’ve always helped to defend my country. I was a soldier in Florencia for eight years. It was a bleak time and I don’t find it easy to forget those years. I remember one particularly awful experience: we were being chased so we had to run and climb through some barbed wire. My friend, another soldier, who was close to me, stepped on a mine, which exploded. He was covered in blood and his leg was badly injured. Two other soldiers behind him were wounded. They were taken away in a helicopter. My friend didn’t survive – he died in the air. It was awful. We were really close. And it could have been me. Two years later, I’d reached the end of my tether, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left, got married, and started working on coffee plantations again.

At the end of 2016, I applied to be a mine clearance expert with Humanity & Inclusion (then, Handicap International). I’ve seen so many people with injuries, people maimed by the conflict. I never want another child or indigenous person to be injured by a mine again. What drives me is the team. We’re like a family. We spend our lives together. We get up at 4:30 am and go to bed at 9:00 pm. We stick together when we’re feeling stressed, and remind each other that our job is really worthwhile. My dream is to lead a team of mine clearance experts one day.”