Peace does not weed out mines

Demining the Colombian countryside is one of the first steps the government and FARC could take to scale back the armed conflict

 A woman looks for mines with a metal detector.
A woman looks for mines with a metal detector.REUTERS-LIVE!

In November 2014, a 13-year-old boy lost an arm, a leg and an eye when he stepped on a mine while playing in his backyard in Arauca, near Caño Limón, one of Colombia’s largest oil fields.

Locals said the Colombian army camped out on a hill nearby a few days before the accident took place. And rebels set up mines wherever the military camps were. It may also be that the army forgot some of its own undetonated munitions at the site. No one knows what happened for sure. Arauca is still waiting for what the government and FARC call “scaling back the conflict” with special emphasis on demining operations.

Guillermo Murcia was one of the 60 victims chosen to meet some of the rebels face to face in Havana where the Santos administration and FARC leaders hold negotiations. His message held a simple logic: “Maybe the guns will be silenced but mines do not understand anything about pacts. No one can silence them. They are set up to wait for their victims.”

Murcia, who prefers to be called survivor instead of victim, coordinates the local chapter of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines (CCCM), a civic organization helping those affected. He keeps a record of victims in this oil-producing region that sits on the border with Venezuela and where the black market thrives. He enlists volunteers to help him keep track of mine accidents in the most remote areas. On December 27, 2014, a 40-year-old man became Arauca’s latest mine victim.

A 13-year-old boy lost an arm, a leg and an eye when he stepped on a mine in Arauca

Arauca has the fourth highest number of mine victims of all Colombian provinces. The government says there have been 596 mine accidents in the region, 28 of these took place last year. Murcia, however, raises that number to 40. At least 11,000 people throughout the country have been affected.

Many survivors from Arauca go to Venezuela where health care services are less expensive while others are afraid to admit they have been victims because the government often accuses them of belonging to FARC or ELN, the two guerrilla groups with the greatest presence in the region. These rebel armies were embroiled in a turf war over the last two years which led to more victims and displaced people. Today they coexist under a non-aggression pact.

What happened to Murcia 10 years ago is a common occurrence in the countryside, the area most affected by the armed conflict. A day before his accident, three soldiers had come to his land to buy bananas. Unfortunately FARC rebels were camping out on the other side of the property. Murica, his wife, and son found themselves trapped in a hail of bullets.

“I was about 30 meters from my house,” Murcia recounts. “The dog blew up into a thousand pieces.” And even though he was not maimed like most survivors of mine accidents, he lost several muscles in his legs, a splinter perforated his lung and he suffered injuries on his arms and back. Murcia spent five months in recovery in a hospital, seven months in a wheelchair and a year and a half on crutches. Afterwards, the community asked the rebels to demine the area. “They took out more than 100 mines but they left one and it killed an old man,” Murcia says. People generally do not report minefields for fear of reprisals. “No one wants to become a snitch,” one local says.

CCCM and Unicef have launched a joint initiative to educate peasants about the problem. A poster on the wall of the only school in the area shares the campaign’s motto: “I take care of myself and I take care of others.” Meanwhile, the World Food Organization delivers food to members of the community who agree to learn about mine safety.

Ten years ago, the Colombian government created a demining task force: 394 people work exclusively on demining operations in areas not occupied by the armed groups. The British organization Halo Trust also provides support. “The problem is that these areas are not the ones that need demining. We need to put bandages where the pain is,” says CCCM director Álvaro Jiménez. His organization has called for “a special agreement” between FARC and the government so that they can remove mines from areas where the guerrilla army still operates. The proposal includes 57 localities in 10 provinces. “They should choose some of these places and both parties should agree on which organizations will clean them up.”

The challenges are enormous because, according to the government, the problem affects 688 municipalities. Alfredo Colón, the director of a government demining program, says the state’s first post-conflict initiative will be figuring out which localities have minefields. “The FARC’s help would be very useful,” Colón says. The government would have to “make a map with them and think about how current and precise the information is.”


Translation: Dyane Jean François

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