Vladan Nikolic, Program Support Officer for Humanity & Inclusion, is just home from visiting an important demining project in Colombia that's funded by the U.S. Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. He visited a mine field, and saw the full spectrum of HI's work to protect civilians living near landmines. While there, a deminer at another site was stung by a scorpion. Later that day, a team deployed to clear a suspected landmine along a schoolyard path. Scroll down to see what it was! As he puts it, "even heroes have bad days." Here are some of his trip highlights:
Aderito Ismael, head of Humanity & Inclusion's demining operations in Colombia, and previously of our work in Mozambique, delivers a briefing on the technical aspects of demining. He explained how each demining team stakes out the locations they'll clear, and the colors they use to communicate what they're doing and how to stay safe.
Our team met with Gloria, a beneficiary whose husband died ten years ago when he stepped on an explosive. Her five-year-old son at the time was injured in the accident. Since then, he's had 17 surgeries and continues to struggle with his sight and hearing. Our team is providing him with care, including help earning a living.
Here, we're traveling across one of many rivers from the main office to a demining camp. Lucky for me, it's the end of Colombia's rainy season, so we could actually cross this portion of the river!
Alongside members of a local farming community, I attended a risk education session led by an HI community liaison officer. The community learned about the dangers of explosive remnants of war, and how to spot, avoid, and report any weapons they may find.
The tire from a toy truck was flipped upside down and filled with mud. As you can see, it really does look like a mine! But we were so relieved when we found out it wasn't a deadly explosive on a path heavily traveled by children.
PS - NPR's Jason Beaubien traveled to Colombia in September 2017, where he met up with HI's demining team. His report explains how HI demines, and what the team found packed in a baby food jar. Listen in!
On the International Day for Mine Awareness, Humanity & Inclusion warns that civilians cannot continue to bear the brunt of global conflicts, with casualty rates rising drastically worldwide.Read more
Five years ago, while Xiemna, 33, was putting her son to bed, a grenade was thrown into her home in Colombia drastically changing her life within seconds. On that day, she lost both of her children and sustained serious injures. With support from Humanity & Inclusion, she has been given psychological support and has now set up her own homemade yogurt business. Xiemna and her husband, Armando tell their story:Read more
In launching mine clearance operations earlier this year in Colombia, Handicap International teams conducted initial surveys to pinpoint hazardous areas throughout the country. Following the results, HI deployed a team of ten deminers to Venta, which is in the Cauca department, for a 45-day operation.Read more
“I was on the bus on my way home from school,” José explains. “I felt a sharp pain in my leg and wanted to get up to run away, but couldn’t.” In 2000, then 18-year-old José lost his right leg in a mine accident in Colombia.
During that time, he lived with his mother on a farm in the Cauca region. “We had a small pig farm and grew coriander which provided enough for us to live on,” José continues. “During the week, I went to school and in the evenings and weekends, I worked.
“The Cauca region was very severely affected by the conflict that ripped Colombia apart for almost fifty years. After the fighting, explosive remnants of war were often left strewn along the roadside, clearly visible and likely to be triggered at any moment. I’ve wondered, how many times did we disturb mines in the river with our feet? I have terrible memories of this period: the image of children enrolled in the armed groups, parading with their rifles. Horrible.
José explains that having his leg amputated was the beginning of a very painful period. "I lost everything. My leg. My job. My future career. I had to give up on my hopes. Everything was ruined.
“Then I met Handicap International.” After receiving a new artificial leg, Handicap International and partner organization, Teirra de Paz gave hope back to José. “They made it possible for me to receive rehabilitation care to learn how to use my prosthesis, and gave me psychological support.
“They also provided me with legal assistance which allowed me to obtain a small pension. The financial support I received allowed me to take up my studies again, and find a new job, a leader in the Cauca Mine Victims Foundation.
“The assistance Handicap International gave me was vital for me and my future. Today, I am walking again. I have an income, I know my rights, and I want to encourage my son to move forward with his life.
"Thanks to Handicap International's mine clearance work we will be able to move around freely again. Colombia is a large, mountainous country that has been devastated by the war. It will take a long time to free the country of mines. But we will get there, eventually."
COLOMBIA: ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST DENSELY MINED COUNTRIES
As part of the new peace agreements between the government and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the Colombian government granted Handicap International full authorization in May 2016 to conduct mine clearance operations in three of the country’s regions. Handicap International has since launched a five-year mine clearance operation, with a specific focus on indigenous land, in the regions of Cauca, Meta, and Caquetá. Learn more about our work in Colombia.
"One day, when I was 24 years old, I was with my uncle and we found a long tube,” Freddy explains. “I tapped it with a hammer and it exploded, seriously injuring my hand.” Freddy, along with his wife and daughter lived in the countryside, in the Vereda La Primavera region of Colombia. Members of the Nasa indigenous community, Freddy and his wife cooked on open fires and used water from the river.
Freddy worked on the coffee, yucca, and corn plantations, alongside other members of his community. And although the country’s 50 years of armed conflict recently came to an end, that doesn’t keep people from living in fear. “We’re constantly looking over our shoulders. In the wake of the conflict that ripped our country apart for years, the ground is littered with explosive remnants of war. We didn’t know what they were.”
Mines and explosive remnants of war contaminate 31 of Colombia's 32 regions. Since 1990, the use of improvised explosive devices has become systematic, generating more than 11,100 casualties, among the injured: Freddy.
On that dark day, Freddy had two of his fingers amputated. “The accident destroyed me,” he says. “I suffered a series of disasters. I started drinking, my wife left me, and I lost my father. I was no longer able to work the land. It was a very dark time.”
Freddy says he restored hope when he met Handicap International: "I have the courage to carry on. I received help with my health issues as well as psychological support. The organization helped me get involved with defending the rights of the indigenous communities, which are victims of the conflict.
“First, I became an accountant, then, an advisor for the organization. I also received financial support that allowed me to start up a small chicken breeding business. I have other plans, including recording a second album of music.
“Without the support of Handicap International, I would never have had the courage to carry on with life, never mind developing my projects. Our rights have been trampled, but we are survivors. There is a brighter future ahead."
COLOMBIA: ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST DENSELY MINED COUNTRIES
As part of the new peace agreements between the government and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the Colombian government granted Handicap International full authorization in 2016 to conduct mine clearance operations in three of the country’s regions. Handicap International has since launched a five-year mine clearance operation, with a specific focus on indigenous land, in the regions of Cauca, Meta, and Caquetá. Learn more about our work in Colombia.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Jemerson explains of the mine he found on the road in May 2015. He was ten, and he and his two cousins were heading to a farm to gather mandarins. “It was an accident. I picked it up with my right hand, then my left hand, and it exploded.”Read more
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.”