Stories from the field | Up for the challenge
This story was originally featured in our April 2017 edition of The Next Step.
Aderito Ismael, HI's head of demining operations in Colombia and former head of demining in Mozambique shares about our operations in Colombia:Read more
Clearing hazardous land in Colombia
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
"Today, I'm walking again"
“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.
A brighter future for Freddy
"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.
Colombia | “I picked it up, and it exploded”
“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.”
Mine action in Colombia | Three deminers tell their stories
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.”
Colombia | "Women play a vital role in mine clearance"
Marta Quintero was fortunate. “When I was 14, I stumbled on a mine as I was walking through my village,” she explains. “It was so damp, it didn’t go off.”
Colombia's conflict zones are littered with mines. According to official figures, more than 11,102 people were killed or maimed by anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war between 1990 and 2014—the second highest rate in the world. More than 1,000 victims were children. According to a Humanity & Inclusion (the new name of Handicap International) survey, 80% of survivors of armed violence have a disability.
“I saw people maimed by mines when I was growing up,” Marta says. “I saw children die for a war that wasn’t theirs. Like many people, violence had a big impact on us."
Today, she's doing something about it. As Humanity & Inclusion's mine clearance operations manager in Meta, she's the expert keeping her community safe. "I really love my work. I can’t tell you how great it feels when I finish clearing a contaminated area.”
Marta is not the only woman engaged in mine clearance operations. Humanity & Inclusion ensures that at least 40% of deminers in Colombia are women–reflecting the high proportion of women in the country–and provides advancement opportunities to all.
Irène Manterola, Humanity & Inclusion’s director in Colombia, explains, “There are currently 17 women and 33 men on our team. Women play a vital role in mine clearance. They are responsible, highly motivated, and their social skills are essential if you’re living in camps with other people.
“Women build relationships with villagers who tell them where to find hard-to-reach mines. By giving women an opportunity to demine, Humanity & Inclusion is gradually helping to improve their image in a country which is still considered to celebrate machismo."
Working in Colombia since 1998, Humanity & Inclusion promotes the full participation in Colombian society of people with disabilities, including victims of internal armed conflict, and their families. The organization also works to ensure that disability issues are taken into account in public policies.
Learn more about our work in Colombia.
Colombia: gearing up to demine
World's second most-densely mined country
Ravaged by 50 years of armed conflict, Colombia is the world’s second-most densely mined country, just behind Afghanistan. Mines and explosive remnants of war contaminate land in 31 of Colombia's 32 regions. Since 1990, the use of improvised explosive devices has become systematic, generating more than 11,100 casualties.Read more
Use of banned weapons reaches record levels
The worldwide use of banned explosive weapons such as landmines and cluster bombs increased significantly in 2014 and 2015, largely due to unchecked use in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar, and Tunisia. To mark the international day of landmine and cluster munition awareness, April 4, Handicap International is calling on the international community to strongly condemn this practice, and for an immediate end to the use of these weapons.
Banned under international law, these weapons have been used at an alarming rate in recent years. Cluster munitions use is at its highest level since 2010, when the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force. Handicap International is calling on States and non-State armed groups to immediately end the use of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, as well as their sale, and transfer. Any use of these weapons must be unanimously and systematically condemned.
According to the latest Cluster Munition Monitor report, published in August 2015, cluster munitions were used in five countries between July 2014 and July 2015: Libya, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen—all States which have not signed the treaty. Not since the ban treaty entered into force in 2010, have so many States or non-State actors been involved in the use of cluster munitions. The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) has also found cluster munitions used on numerous occasions in Yemen and Syria.
In stark contrast, the Cluster Munition Monitor found only two countries impacted by the use of cluster munitions in 2011 and 2012, and three in 2013.
79% of victims are civilians
The latest Landmine Monitor report, published in November 2015, found an alarming and “significant increase” in the use of anti-personnel mines and improvised explosive devices by non-State armed groups in ten countries: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Yemen. The last time the Monitor reported use of these weapons in ten or more countries was 2006.
The vast majority of casualties of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions are civilians—79% of reported casualties.
“The repeated use of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions reveals a total disregard for civilian lives and, in some cases, a deliberate intention to target them,” says Emmanuel Sauvage, the organization's anti-mine action regional coordinator, based in Amman, Jordan. “Cluster munitions kill and main during an attack. They also leave explosive remnants behind that function like anti-personnel mines and can cause casualties long after a conflict has ended.”
Yemen is a particularly revealing example. For several months, explosive weapons have been used by all parties to the conflict on a massive scale in populated areas. Anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions have been deployed regularly. In May 2015, Human Rights Watch, for example, confirmed the use of cluster munitions in the north of the governorate of Saada, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. Cluster munitions landed less than 600 meters from several dozen homes. Anti-personnel mines were also used on several occasions this summer. In total, since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has recorded 15 incidents involving six types of cluster munitions in at least five of Yemen’s 21 governorates: Amran, Hajja, Hodaida, Saada, and Sanaa.
Handicap International is calling on States and non-State armed groups to immediately end the use of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, their sale and transfer, to strongly condemn their use under any circumstances and, when they are party to a conflict, to apply pressure on their allies not to use these weapons.