Ravaged by 50 years of armed conflict, Colombia is the world’s second-most densely mined country, just behind Afghanistan. In 31 of its 32 regions, the land is contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war. Since 1990, the use of improvised explosive devices has become systematic, resulting in more than 11,100 casualties.
On 13th May 2016, Handicap International was formally appointed by the Colombian government to conduct mine clearance operations in three of the country’s departments, as part of the new peace agreements between the government and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Handicap International is currently preparing to launch a five-year mine clearance operation with a specific focus on indigenous land, in the departments of Cauca, Meta and Caquetá.
"In Colombia, around 80% of the victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war have disabilities. And half of these casualties are civilians living in remote areas, without direct access to health centres or rehabilitation care," explains Irène Manterola, Handicap International's Country Director in Colombia.
"For Handicap International, running these mine clearance operations helps to prevent disabilities, and to restore peace and promote economic development within the country."
Most members of the demining teams trained by Handicap International are themselves from the indigenous communities where the organisation is preparing to launch mine clearance operations. This means they are well aware of the cultural sensitivities within local communities and can play a role in the process of restoring peace within their own villages.
Ramiro Pineda Posada, who works as a deminer for Handicap International, explains:
"Growing up, our parents passed on their love of the land, which we all live off. By clearing it of mines, we gain the satisfaction not only of helping to develop our country but also, and more importantly, enabling communities to restore peace, which has eluded them for so long. Demining allows me to play my part."
Marta Quintero, who supervises Handicap International’s mine clearance operations, adds, "We spend more than 90% of the time on our knees. We know when an operation starts, but we don’t know when it will end. Removing landmines can take months or even years. It’s difficult to describe just how happy I feel when I’ve finished clearing a mined area."
Prevention, demining, recovery: an integrated approach
Handicap International has developed a comprehensive approach to its demining activities in Colombia:
"Since April 2016, we have trained three demining teams, made up of 14 deminers, ready to launch operations in the departments of Cauca, Meta and Caquetá, while at the same time recruiting new deminers," explains Aderito Ismael, head of Handicap International's demining operations in Colombia.
"In addition, seven teams are conducting surveys prior to the mine clearance operations: we check data received by the government regarding the location of mines and compare this with information obtained from the villagers. We also use metal detectors to identify areas to be cleared. We are planning to launch mine clearance operations in late February and March, initially in the Cauca department, then in Meta and Caquetá."
"At the same time, we are continuing to provide local-level mine risk education and victim assistance in six of the most heavily mine contaminated departments - Antioquia, Cauca, Caquetá, Córdoba, Nariño and Meta (specifically by offering rehabilitation sessions)."
"We are also improving access to employment and education for people with disabilities. Our approach is comprehensive: we prevent the risk of developing disabilities, clear the land of mines and provide victim assistance through rehabilitation and psychological support services. In this way, we target not only the causes but also the consequences of disability,”