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.”
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.”
“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.”