In 1982, two doctors working in refugee camps in Thailand started helping survivors of landmine explosions who had been injured fleeing across the heavily mined border. There they met Gniep, a young girl who had lost her leg after stepping on a landmine. Gniep was one of the first children ever supported by Humanity & Inclusion. This is her story.
I was 5 years old, living under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, four long years in absolute darkness of uncertainty, anguish and fear. In 1979, fleeing misery and hunger, I left my village with my aunt, leaving everything behind, believing that it was temporary.
Antipersonnel landmines were all over Cambodia. To this day they still kill and mutilate an alarmingly high number of people. At the time, we were not informed about the risk they posed. While in the camp, I went to fetch water and that’s when it happened: I stepped on a mine.
I remember it as if it were yesterday; the violence was such that I was thrown in the air. Stunned and dizzy by the shock of the explosion, I did not know that I had just stepped on a mine. I tried to get up and walk three times before understanding that my right leg was torn off at the calf, and that the left one was badly affected, too.
By instinct of survival, probably, I moved myself to a path, where two soldiers passing by found me and brought me on their motorcycle to a makeshift dispensary. There, the analgesic I was given was a stick that I had to bite on when the pain became too much.
Then, I was transferred to a refugee camp in Thailand commonly known as Khao I Dang. I had to undergo 17 operations because the surgeon wanted to preserve the joint, but my leg was gangrenous and I fell into a coma for a month.
Not long afterward, I met the founding members of HI. They were a small group of young people, who were friends, husbands and wives, full of enthusiasm, their heads full of dreams and ideals, animated by a crazy desire to help people like me who had been stripped of everything. With great humanity and respect, they put me back on my feet again.
My first prosthesis was very simple, made of recycled materials like wood, car tires, and resin. I admit that I had a hard time accepting it because it was heavy and hard to put on.
It's hard to believe that was 40 years ago. Today, despite my disability, I lead my life like everyone else. I am a night nurse, working for young people with multiple disabilities. And I am a mother of a young and beautiful girl. I am so very grateful to those women and men who helped me all those years ago. They gave me back my smile and dignity, which everyone should have!
Humanity & Inclusion is conducting humanitarian demining operations in El Cañón de Las Hermosas in Colombia, helping communities regain the use of their land.
Four areas in El Cañón de Las Hermosas are potentially contaminated by explosive devices: El Escobal, La Aurora, El Davis and Las Hermosas Natural Park, a protected nature reserve. Through surveys and clearance operations carried out by Humanity & Inclusion’s teams, the communities will soon be able to use their agricultural and pastoral lands again and gradually restore the ecosystem.
The terrain around El Cañón de Las Hermosas is rugged and mountainous. Landslides, rockslides and flooding frequently block the only access road, cutting off communities.
"To reach the work sites, the demining team has to travel on horseback for about five hours, crossing rivers and ravines," explains Toni Vitola, head of the demining project in Chaparral.
With the first surveys of the area completed, demining operations were launched in July of this year. The team of 10 or so deminers works for six weeks on site before having two weeks off. They aim to clear 10 acres of explosive contamination.
During the first year of the project, 60 residents participated in mine risk education sessions.
"There is evidence of explosive devices in the first area we are going to clear. Detonations have been heard there and five cows disappeared after entering the area," Vitola adds.
Prioritizing community needs
The areas where Humanity & Inclusion is working are between 5,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level. They are traditionally used by the communities to grow coffee, maize, bananas, yucca, and to raise livestock. A legacy of prior armed conflict, he possible presence of explosive devices prevents residents from making full use of their land. With support from Humanity & Inclusion’s demining operations, communities will soon be able to work, play and live without fear.
To support community-led development projects, Humanity & Inclusion organizes consultations with residents to determine which needs are top priorities. These consultations have led to the development of project to construct three large greenhouses, with support from Humanity & Inclusion.
Álvaro Lozano is a community liaison officer who works for Humanity & Inclusion. He comes from the Chaparral area himself and has high hopes for his neighbors and community:
"We have many dreams but I want to see more and more of them come true,” Lozano says. “I dream of a lasting peace, of lands that we can leave as a legacy for future generations. We all dream of lands that we can enjoy and where we can develop green tourism.”
Legacy of armed conflict
El Cañón de Las Hermosas is marked by a long history of armed conflict. For more than 50 years, communities have experienced the humanitarian consequences of this conflict: displacement, confinement, forced recruitment, accidents caused by explosive devices, and more.
"I was confined to my house for two years because an armed group ordered it,” Lozano shares. “I couldn't bear the idea of being locked up on my own land.”
Since the peace agreements, the region’s natural wealth is being rediscovered. It is home to almost 125,000 acres of forests, lagoons, wetlands and paramos—the high plateaus of the Andes. Species of flora and fauna—including endangered species—found only in the region thrive. But as Lozano points out, the presence of explosive devices affects this wildlife in addition to the people living in the region.
Humanity & Inclusion's demining operations in Chaparral and across Colombia are carried out with the support of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
Roger Eid oversees Humanity & Inclusion’s demining operations in Lebanon. He explains the importance of this work to restore land for civilians to safely live, work and play.
Q: What are the objectives of demining in Lebanon?
Clearing land contaminated by explosive remnants of war improves access to safe land and infrastructure for the communities affected by the civil war in Lebanon that lasted from 1975 to 1990.
In addition to land clearance, Humanity & Inclusion is carrying out risk education sessions in Arsal. These activities aim to promote safe behaviors and reduce the risks of explosive remnants of war by raising awareness among targeted communities. In total, more than 200 awareness-raising sessions have been conducted for 1,700 people in Arsal.
Q: What is a typical day for a deminer?
The deminers wake up very early—at 4 a.m.—to avoid working in the heat of the day. They arrive at the Aley base at 6.30 a.m. and collect the necessary equipment and tools.
The site supervisor and the team leader brief the deminers on the objectives and safety. The deminers can then start work, wearing protective equipment and carrying a mine detector and a shovel. Each deminer does six to seven 50-minute interventions per day. The team then packs up the tools and equipment and returns to the base before going home.
Our deminers have now started testing drones to locate explosive remnants of war in the districts of Aaqoura and Aley. This technique is effective in collecting visual information of a hazardous area and rapidly identifying signs of explosive ordnance. The use of drones can speed up the release of land.
Q: Where do these demining operations take place?
The demining team is currently working in Mount Lebanon, in the Aley district. Our team is composed of 12 people, including seven deminers. Operations are underway in the villages of Bsatine, Btater and Chartoune. The demining zone in Chartoune is 87 yards from the nearest house, with a farm 82 yards away. The polluted area is agricultural land, where olive trees, fruit trees and pine trees had been planted. Five mines have been found so far, and destroyed on the spot.
The area to be demined is identified in coordination with the Lebanese Mine Action Center, which has established a demining prioritization system.
Q: How much land has HI cleared?
Humanity & Inclusion's demining team in Lebanon has cleared almost 250 acres in ten years of operations, including more than two acres that have been cleared in 2022.
In total, Humanity & Inclusion’s operations have cleared 56 villages of mines and explosive remnants of war in the districts of Batroun, Koura and Bcharre, where 192 minefields were demined and the land returned to the community. The Cedar Nature Reserves in Niha, Tannourine and Hadath El Jebbeh have also been cleared.
Those directly benefiting from the cleared land are the farmers and other people who work in the fields. The clearance efforts indirectly impact the broader community in each village.
Still, Lebanon has almost 4,500 acres of confirmed mined areas, including along the Blue Line in the south of the country.
Q: What role does the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty play in demining operations in Lebanon?
The Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty is crucial to our demining operations in Lebanon. Lebanon is not a member of the Ottawa Treaty, which bans anti-personnel mines and requires the decontamination of mined areas, but it gives us the legitimacy and motivation to continue our mission in the country. The Ottawa Treaty has become an international standard; it has been joined by 164 states. It has a huge influence in Lebanon. It challenges us to expand our operations to new areas and to accelerate demining activities by testing new innovative approaches, such as drone surveys.
Q: What are the next steps for mine clearance in Lebanon?
Humanity & Inclusion will continue pursuing its commitment to landmine and cluster munition clearance. We plan to increase our teams to a minimum of two in each of the new districts in which we’ll be operating. We will be focusing on priority areas in the Mount Lebanon governorate, such as El Matn and Chouf districts. These districts were severely affected by the 1975 war; they are contaminated by many types of explosive remnants of war, including landmines and cluster bombs.
Since 2016, Humanity & Inclusion has been conducting land release operations in Iraq. Explosive weapons clearance is currently underway in Kirkuk.
Contamination by landmines, improvised explosive devices, explosives remnants of war and other types of explosive ordnance represents a long-term threat for more than 8 million civilians living in Iraq. The country, which has ratified the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, aims to become mine-free by 2028.
Humanity & Inclusion is currently conducting clearance operations in Iraq around the village of Bashir to the south of the city of Kirkuk. A team of nine people, including two clearance operators and two mobile teams are working on this site. Already this year, they have cleared 16 acres of land and neutralized 32 explosive devices.
Since Humanity & Inclusion’s demining operations began in Iraq six years ago, teams have cleared nearly 450 acres and neutralized more than 1,600 explosive devices.
Neutralizing improvised explosive devices
Most of the explosive weapons found by demining experts in the area are improvised devices made of large metal containers filled with homemade mixtures of ammonium nitrate and aluminum. Most are triggered by a simple pressure switch.
Once located, specialists use hand tools to uncover the device, identify its parts and determine how it functions. Then, the operator decides the best course of action to neutralize the device: destroy the item where it is, use a spring-loaded cutter to remotely separate the switch that initiates the device from the detonation chain or remotely cut the wires of the electrical circuit.
Operators are aware of the constant threat posed by an anti-lift device or the possibility of a second device being placed under the main one. As a precaution, and to negate this threat, all the component parts are remotely lifted out of the ground from a safe distance using different configurations of anchors, hooks and line.
Safely returning land to communities
Land release operations aim to identify contaminated areas and clear them in order to provide safe access to those areas for development or agricultural purposes. With a population of 3,000, Bashir is mostly rural farmland. Approximately one-third of residents are landowners and land users.
Iraq acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty on in August 2007, and formally became a State Party to the treaty in February 2008. Fully committed to meet the objectives of the treaty, Iraqi authorities are working to make the country mine-free by 2028.
Widespread contamination of landmines, improvised mines and unexploded ordnance makes Iraq among the most contaminated countries in the world. Currently, 8.5 million people in Iraq are at-risk of landmines and improvised explosive devices. Nearly 350,000 acres of land, including agricultural land and urban areas, are dangerous and unusable.
Gaëlle Smith, Humanity & Inclusion’s emergency rehabilitation specialist, was deployed to Ukraine to support the local teams. She shares her experience treating patients at a hospital in Dnipro.Read more
In July 2022, Humanity & Inclusion declared the Inzá municipality free of landmines, explosive devices and unexploded ordnance. Over a period of two years, the organization conducted demining operations in eight locations spanning more than three acres in Inzá – land that has now been released back to the region’s 27,000 residents.
"We hope that the land we surveyed will contribute to the construction of a more equal society, to social development and to the development of ecotourism in the region," Arturo Bureo, Humanity & Inclusion's Director of Operations in Colombia, said at a ceremony marking the land’s release back to local communities. "And above all, we hope that the decontamination of Inzá will benefit the indigenous and farming communities that live there."
Igniting economic growth
Located southeast of Bogotá, Inzá boasts archaeological, architectural and natural wealth. But, as in many parts of the country, indigenous and farming communities have long had to contend with the legacy of mines and improvised explosive devices left over from armed conflict.
Among the most notable landmarks is the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of the suspected presence of explosive devices, it has never been fully explored or reached its potential as a tourism destination. The municipality is also home to the La Casa del Pueblo public library, which has received a national award for Colombian libraries. With landmine contamination abated, these natural and cultural treasures will again be able to contribute to the region’s development and help revive the local economy.
Justiniano Pencué, a farmer from the indigenous community of Nasa, has waited 10 years to plant and cultivate his land safely. During that time, the danger posed by explosive devices on his land prevented him from expanding his coffee farm.
Now, Justiniano can return to his land without fear. He has a nursery of 5,000 coffee plants ready to be sown and harvested in areas that are finally free of mines.
"I am already preparing the land to plant my coffee,” Justiniano (pictured) says. “With these crops, we’ll be able to make a living to feed ourselves."
Restoring safety to neighbors
Diana Milena Pacho, a member of the indigenous community of San José, is a non-technical demining survey assistant at Humanity & Inclusion. For two years, she worked hand in hand with her neighbors, surveying more than 14 areas suspected of explosive device contamination. Through her work, Diana has helped restore confidence to the people of Inzá, who can now safely live, work and play.
“I have been able to pass on what I've learned to my community, explaining to people not to touch explosives and teaching my family how to be careful,” Diana explains. “With the threat of explosive devices gone, we can now walk around without worrying, work in safety and visit the tourist sites without fear.”
In addition to clearance operations, teams organized 45 mine risk education workshops to help residents learn how to spot, avoid and report explosive weapons. Nearly 6,000 families participated in education sessions.
Mine action in Colombia
Dating back to 1990, 12,200 people have been injured or killed by explosive devices in Colombia. Behind only Afghanistan, Colombia has the second highest number of mine victims in the world. Mine clearance and victim assistance are vital in helping communities safely reclaim their land, boost the local economy and rebuild the social fabric.
With funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, Humanity & Inclusion implements mine clearance actions in the five Colombian departments of Cauca, Meta, Nariño, Antioquia and Caquetá. Across Colombia, Humanity & Inclusion has surveyed more than 222,000 acres to identify areas of possible contamination. As part of its holistic approach to mine action, teams also provide mine risk education to affected communities, offer psychosocial support and rehabilitation care to survivors of these dangerous weapons, and help them find gainful employment.
Inzá is the second municipality in which Humanity & inclusion has completed its humanitarian demining operations, following the release of Puracé to its residents in October 2021.
Colombia is among the signatories of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, which marks its 25th anniversary this year. While the U.S. has made progress in its anti-personnel landmine policy, it has yet to join the near-universal treaty.
Lithsouda, 19, lost his right eye and the fingers on his right hand in a cluster bomb explosion when he was a child. With support from Humanity & Inclusion, he is rebuilding his life and supporting other survivors of explosive weapons.
In 2009, 6-year-old Lithsouda was playing outside his grandmother’s house. He started to build a fire, and that’s when he triggered a cluster bomb buried in the ground.
To save him, Lithsouda’s family borrowed money from their neighbors, sold their belongings and hired a car to take him to a hospital three hours away. Lithsouda lost his right eye and the fingers on his right hand and was left with scars all over his body.
Rebuilding his life
Because of his injuries, other people see him as different, which makes him feel excluded.
With support from Humanity & Inclusion, he participates in a group of community volunteers in his village in Laos. Lithsouda has been trained to promote the inclusion and community participation of people with disabilities, including other survivors of landmines and explosive remnants of war.
"All this training has opened my mind and encouraged me to spend more time with my friends,” Lithsouda says.
Because of his disabilities, Lithsouda was unable to help his family by working in the field or fishing. Today, he works as a farmer and is empowered to participate in activities. He enjoys playing sports, fetching food, looking after livestock and spending time with friends.
Chue Por lost his arm in a landmine explosion 15 years ago. With the support of Humanity & Inclusion, he has regained his independence and advocates for explosive weapons to be banned.
In January 2007, Chue Por was fishing with friends in northeastern Laos when he pulled a landmine out of the water. It exploded in his hand. He was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors amputated his arm. His family sold all their livestock and borrowed money from their neighbors to save his life.
Chue Por, who was 18 at the time of the incident, dropped out of school because he felt too dependent and different from his friends. Because of his amputation, he could no longer work on his parents' farm or find other ways to help support his family.
Humanity & Inclusion met Chue Por in 2019 and referred him to a rehabilitation center, where he was fitted with an artificial hand and given physical therapy.
"Thanks to Humanity & Inclusion, I am supported both physically and psychologically,” Chue Por says.
Rediscovering sense of purpose
Today, Chue Por is receiving training to become a volunteer in his village and support people with mental health issues. He also participates in inclusion activities to help people with disabilities find their place in the community.
Chue Por grows rice and beans to sell, so he can support his family.
"Today I can clearly see the positive changes in my life,” he explains. “I am happy to be with my family and to look after my cattle.”
Chue Por is engaged in advocacy efforts supporting the Mine Ban Treaty, the Cluster Munitions Convention and other international frameworks to prevent the use of landmines and other explosive weapons during war.
Mohammad Rasool manages Humanity & Inclusion’s programs in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He provides insight into the country’s dire humanitarian situation, one year after the Taliban seized power.
Since the Taliban took control of the Afghan government in August 2021, the humanitarian context has deteriorated significantly. Facing an economic collapse, devastating drought and consequences of war, people find it difficult to simply survive.
Q: What is the humanitarian situation in Kandahar today?
The humanitarian context is still complex. There has been no improvement in food insecurity and unemployment and poverty are widespread. The financial system is not fully functional, with businesses unable to access their funds in the banks, for example. Inflation, drought and recent flooding in some districts have exacerbated the situation.
Humanitarian needs are huge and have not been fully met by the assistance that the international community pledged in August 2021. As for mine action programs, funding has been cut, which is increasing the exposure and vulnerability of communities living in areas contaminated with mines and other explosive remnants of war.
Q: What is daily life like in Kandahar?
People are extremely anxious about their future. The daily life of women and girls has been very seriously affected. For almost a year now, girls have not been allowed to go to school beyond 7th grade. Thousands of girls and women are very concerned about their education and future.
Q: Is Humanity & Inclusion still able to work with and for women?
Our female staff have been able to continue working in the provincial capital and six districts of Kandahar province. The credit for this goes to our committed field staff for their active engagement with community elders and local representatives, and to the authorities for facilitating access to our life-saving activities in conflict-affected and underserved areas.
Q: What services does the Humanity & Inclusion team offer?
Humanity & Inclusion provides rehabilitation care, as the country’s health system is unable to meet the demand. Given the scarcity of physical therapy services, we have developed a 3-year training curriculum and are currently training some 120 future physical therapists. We also provide psychosocial support to many people suffering from stress and anxiety, as there are very few mental health services in the country. And we conduct risk education sessions, as the presence of mines and explosive remnants of war remain a daily threat to the population.
Lastly, Humanity & Inclusion teams in Kunduz and Herat have started distributing cash assistance to support families with the lowest income. Between six and nine allowances of $200 are being paid to 1,600 households to enable them to buy food and access basic services such as healthcare.
Q: What kinds of people do you see at the rehabilitation center?
We had more than 700 cases in June. Most of the disabilities are congenital or due to birth defects or road or domestic accidents. Fifty cases were due to injuries caused by armed violence.
Fortunately, we are not seeing any new cases of war victims. There has also been a reduction in the number of new victims of mine or explosive remnants of war accidents. This is largely due to Humanity & Inclusion’s mine risk educators who raise the awareness of thousands of children and adults in at-risk areas each month.
Rehabilitation needs in general are still huge. People come to the center every day, some of them from very far away. There are only two rehabilitation centers serving the south of the country, so for some families the journey to the center can take a whole day. Since August 2021, we have seen a significant increase in patient numbers. Now that the fighting, the roadblocks and the strict security measures have ended, more people are able to get to us. We are currently seeing more than 130 people a week at the Kandahar center.
Q: How clear is the link between disability and explosive devices in Afghanistan?
Based on the data from our center, the majority of people with acquired disabilities are victims of explosive devices, landmines and other remnants of war. In Afghanistan, disability prevalence is very high; 80% of the adult population has some form of disability due to mines and explosive remnants of war, armed conflicts or limited access to health and nutrition services.
Q: How have the activities at the center been expanded?
Last June, Humanity & Inclusion opened a Step-Down Unit at the Kandahar rehabilitation center. This unit is designed to ensure a smooth and uninterrupted transition from acute trauma care to comprehensive rehabilitation services for patients with complex injuries and a high risk of complications and permanent disability. It also provides healthcare services for musculoskeletal and neurological sub-acute conditions that require comprehensive early rehabilitation care.
The unit adopts an interdisciplinary approach (health, rehabilitation and psychosocial support services) during the early comprehensive rehabilitation phase. It also ensures the provision of psychosocial support for patients and relief for caregivers, and accompanies the recovery process through further follow-up at the rehabilitation center, outpatient care and community inclusion.
Humanity & Inclusion’s team of doctors and nurses provides a 24/7 service at the Step-Down Unit. Between June 6 and July 26 alone, they admitted and treated 56 patients: 28 men, 16 women, six boys and six girls.
After an unexploded ordnance accident, Imran receives rehabilitation care and new artificial limbs from Humanity & Inclusion’s specialists.
Imran, 7, was playing with his friends when the imaginable happened.
“I was climbing the hill in Kohak village with my friends,” he explains. “I saw something strange and when I touched it, it blew up.”
Imran’s father took him to Mirwais Regional Hospital, where he was admitted for surgery. Imran’s injuries were so severe that doctors amputated both of the boy’s legs.
As Imran recovered from the operation, he was referred to Humanity & Inclusion’s rehabilitation center in Kandahar, Afghanistan. There, measurements were taken to make him two custom-fit artificial limbs. After he was fitted, Humanity & Inclusions’s physical therapists helped him strengthen his muscles to walk again. He also received a wheelchair to assist him with his daily living.
Imran is returning back to his routine.
“I feel like I’ve got my legs back,” Imran exclaims. “I can walk again and play with my friends.”
Imran’s father, who is a driver for a living, is committed to supporting his family and his son’s recovery.
”I am committed to getting him back to school and will support him to finish his studies,” he says.
HI's rehabilitation center
Located in Kandahar, Humanity & Inclusion's rehabilitation center treats people with conflict-related injuries, often caused by explosive devices. Survivors of serious accidents, patients with diabetes-related amputations and people with polio are also among those receive physical therapy services. The center is staffed by 52 professionals specializing in physical therapy or psychosocial support work. It is the only rehabilitation center in southern Afghanistan.