Luis Alberto Tibabuiza, a young man who was drafted by the government and who now dreams of leaving the country to study languages, lost one of his legs while guarding a convoy for Ecopetrol, the country's oil company.
"I am a victim and I don't see that as an honor or as something that merits an homage," he told Univision News. "Mine victims are honored, but I don't want that. I feel also like a state victim. I didn't sign up willingly to be a soldier and I feel I didn't receive what I deserved [from the government]."
According to Landmine Monitor, the Colombian government allocated $9.5 million in mine-action funding in 2011. The money helped to fund better educational programs and physical services for survivors, the global watchdog said in its latest report. Yet local NGOs say the funds are not enough.
"The fundamental problem with victims, and with a country that is at war like ours, is that every event is buried under a new event," Jiménez said.
International aid organizations like the ICBL, UNICEF and the Halo Trust; the U.S. State Department; local NGOs like Colombian Campaign against Mines, Colombia's Center for Rehabilitation (CIREC) and VICMA; and some of the country's celebrities are starting to pick up the tab and promote campaigns to raise awareness. In 2011, outside aid accounted for $11.1 million, 54 percent of the total mine-action funding in the country.
"Our dream is of course to have a Colombia with no landmines," Juanes, a current spokesperson for the "Lend Your Leg" campaign and one of the artists who has dedicated the most resources to mine action, told Univision News.
As part of "Lend Your Leg," on April 4 millions of people around the world commemorate International Mine Awareness Day by rolling up their pants as part of a symbolic gesture of "lending your leg" in support of mine victims. The campaign was born in Colombia in 2011, and it gained traction largely through social media. In 2012, it won a Silver Lion award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and it has already featured personalities like United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The road ahead remains uncertain, however. International aid is at its lowest point since the signing of the Ottawa Treaty, according to the ICBL, and this year the "Lend Your Leg" campaign seems to lack the strength it previously had. Moreover, it's unclear whether it yields any tangible benefit, according to several NGO activists and mine victims. "All awareness campaigns like this one are important, and I support them fully," Jiménez said. "But the main task is to try to stop them from becoming a one-day flower, a daily activity that can be forgotten the very next day. The question is: What was the result of last year's 'Lend Your Leg?'" He later acknowledged that there were no direct benefits to mine victims.
The Path Forward
For almost a year and a half after being injured, Ortega struggled through different sorts of surgeries and physical therapies, until he was ready to start training with a prosthetic limb. He says the army gave him a shoddy prosthesis ("It's the difference between buying a fully-equipped car and one that has the bare minimum," he explained), and that he received a severance pay of approximately $45,000 when he was retired. He wanted to buy a house in Bucamaranga, a major city close to the town where he was born, but the money wasn't enough. A medical board certified that he was fully incapacitated to work, and the army gave him a monthly pension of about $600. He moved to Villavicencio, a city located 200 miles from Bucamaranga, and took a job as a night watchman to support his family.
"Right after it happened, I thought the pain was the worst. Then, I thought that to become a cripple was the worst of it all. But I had no idea of the monster that was waiting for me ahead," Ortega said.
To fit his new prosthetic limb, Ortega had to travel repeatedly to Bogotá. He had no money and the army couldn't pay for his ticket. Since he was in a wheelchair, it was hard to travel by bus or any other sort of public service. He still felt a gnawing pain and his left foot had gone from a size 7 to a size 12. He needed a special orthopedic shoe if he ever wanted to walk again.
Then, about a year ago, Mario González from the VICMA foundation contacted Ortega. González had been talking to retired military officers and one of them told him that Ortega could be a good candidate to receive a donation. González travelled to Villavicencio and visited Ortega, who gladly accepted to start working for the foundation.
Ortega received a new socket for his stump, a new prosthesis and a special orthopedic shoe. He recently discussed how it felt to walk again, but he didn't dwell much on it. He mostly talked about what had happened to him, and about the ordeal of mine victims. Over and over during the conversation, he uttered a short refrain to explain his reaction to the event, and the reasons behind it. "You are a soldier," he kept repeating, as if that said it all.