The Definite Explainer on What Landmines Are and Why They Suck

Landmines are killing Colombians, and the problem is only getting worse.

April 3, 2013, 10:50 AM

April 4, 2013— -- Shortly after noon on December 4, 2009, Diomedez Ortega, a brawny brown-skinned man with dark eyes and the sharp ears that go along with a military crew cut, rappelled from a helicopter to the outskirts of a guerilla camp in the Paramillo Massif, an isolated mountainous region in western Colombia. Ortega, a 29-year-old Colombian Special Forces veteran, ran a dozen meters through the tall grass, glaring at the field ahead while his nine comrades struggled through the uneven terrain. He stopped a few yards short of the camp and established a line of fire. Standing still, he signaled the rest of the soldiers to cover the unit's flanks. Ortega clutched his rifle, took a step forward and felt a searing pain tearing through his legs.

"It was like a movie," he said one recent morning. "I didn't see anything. I felt the landmine explode beneath my feet, but I remained conscious. I realized I was the one who had been hit. I was knocked down." He paused and then added, "You feel powerless, useless, a hundred percent vulnerable. And you have to accept it, for what else can you do? You are a soldier."

The Ongoing Battle

Mines are a seemingly endless scourge in Colombia. The country had the largest number of mine casualties in 2006, and the third largest number of mine-related deaths in the past two decades, according to Landmine Monitor, an independent global program that researches the humanitarian and developmental consequences of landmines. Since 1990, there have been mine-related incidents in 31 of the nation's 32 states, according to the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Mine Action (PAICMA for its Spanish acronym). As the "Lend Your Leg" campaign noted in its promotion of April 4th, International Mine Awareness Day, more than 10,000 Colombians have been affected by landmines. That figure includes 1,003 children and almost 6,400 members of the armed forces.

In many former war-zones across the world, mines are an ever-present hazard. Generally they are buried during war, and then they can be completely forgotten for years until suddenly they become the cause of a severe injury or death. In 2011, at least 66 countries reported the presence of mined areas, and 4,286 people died as a result of them -- nearly 12 each day. Seventy-five percent of those who died were civilians.

Colombia accounted for nearly 13 percent of the entire world's landmine casualties that year. Nearly three people were killed or injured by a mine every two days, the third highest casualty rate in the world. More worrying is that, contrary to global trends, the number of mine casualties in Colombia actually increased this year, according to Álvaro Jiménez, the director of the Colombian Campaign against Mines."There have been reports of mine-related accidents in 622 municipalities, more than half of the national territory," Jiménez told Univision News. "The government cites a small number of victims, but we've always insisted that the actual figure is closer to 800,000 when you take into account the killed, the maimed, the injured and the families and communities that depend on them."

For almost 50 years, government forces have been fighting guerrilla groups throughout the national territory. During that time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have used mines to gain a tactical advantage and to protect strategic military positions. They continue to do so today, and lately, as the conflict has further intensified, they have used mines to protect coca fields from eradication efforts and to randomly strike at soldiers and police in remote rural areas.

Last year, Colombia was the only nation in the Western Hemisphere where independent observers confirmed new use of antipersonnel mines. While countries like Cambodia, Angola, Poland and Turkey have struggled to deal with explosive remnants from previous conflicts, Colombia has been forced to face a growing number of mine fields hidden by FARC and ELN.

In Putumayo, a remote jungle state in the south of the country, Carolina García, a journalist for award-winning news site La Silla Vacía, recently reported that the government was being forced to build boarding schools throughout the state as part of an effort to prevent children from stepping on mines on their way to school (in Putumayo, most children have to travel long distances to attend the state's few public schools). In Nariño, a neighboring state, 250 indigenous families were effectively trapped near the town of Tumaco by surrounding minefields planted by guerrilla groups, according to reports from local NGOs. And the situation is equally worrying in Arauca, Antioquia, Cauca and at least half a dozen other states, where there have been recent incidents involving not just guerrilla fighters and soldiers, but also pregnant women and children.

Peace negotiations between the government and FARC are currently under way in Cuba. Thus far, however, mines are not being discussed, and activists and conflict experts are worried about what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of mines that have been planted -- and that are still being planted -- in Colombia's rural areas.

"The government and the FARC need to solve the mine problem the country is facing," Jiménez said. "They need to identify what areas have been mined and how we are going to start demining those areas."

FARC and ELN have deployed antipersonnel mines throughout an estimated area of up to 100 square kilometers, according to the Landmine Monitor. Most, though not all, of them surround guerrilla bases and camps located in distant, barely accessible regions like the forests of Putumayo, the valleys of Arauca or the wastelands of the Paramillo Massif in the western tip of the Andes, where Ortega suffered his encounter with a mine.

Ortega had been in the military for more than 11 years before his injury. He had trained with the Colombian army's special units and had participated in numerous operations against guerrilla encampments. He knew about the risks his job entailed, and he thanked God as soon as he understood that he was still alive. After the explosion, he watched through the numbing pain at the faces of his squad members as their carefully planned attack disintegrated.

"They looked horror-stricken," he said. "It was the first time it happened to someone within our unit. I was hit and another one of us was also hit by the same mine. It was a minefield with 250 high-powered antipersonnel mines."

Ortega heard the first shots shortly after. Guerrillas were firing at them from the camp. He heard shouts and watched as some of the men fired back. One of the soldiers called for an emergency aircraft as they tried to fend off the attack. Slowly, Ortega became aware of the fact that his right leg had been blown off almost completely and that his left leg had been broken. He was crippled and could barely crawl.

The shots eventually subsided as the guerrillas escaped. Those soldiers who were still well surrounded the injured and tried to stabilize them while the emergency aircraft came back for them. The plane arrived almost two hours later, Ortega says, and flew him to the Leo XIII Hospital in Medellín.

A Problem With No Easy Solution

Mines are cheap and effective weapons that can kill a man while raising a general alarm and stopping a strike force's advance. In that sense, they offer unparalleled tactical benefits. Mining a field is also relatively inexpensive, giving them an attractive financial benefit. But demining even a small area implies huge physical risks and financial costs. The price of manufacturing a mine ranges from $3 to $75, while the price of removing one ranges from $350 to $1000.

Despite their apparent advantages, however, mines are barely used nowadays. They are "dumb," self-sufficient weapons that will explode as long as the necessary pressure is exerted or released, and they don't distinguish between participants in a conflict and unwary civilians. The wounds they cause can require long and expensive operations to treat -- the initial hospital stay from a mine-related injury costs on average $4000, according to the World Health Organization. As a consequence of their terrible human cost, there were reports of new mine use in only eight countries in the world last year.

According to The History of Landmines by former Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal Officer Henry Kroll, the modern mine's direct ancestors were first created by Confederate soldiers who refurbished artillery shells during the American Civil War (the mine's indirect ancestors are caltrops, a four pointed item used by the Roman armies). The variety the Confederates created was perfected throughout the world's subsequent conflicts, gaining in durability and destructive force, until, in the words of Kroll, the "mine came of age" during World War II.

Landmines later became a weapon of choice for government and guerrilla forces during the Cold War. Millions were planted throughout countries like Cambodia, and at the height of their popularity, more than 50 nations produced them en masse.

But when the Cold War ended, tens of millions of landmines remained buried across four continents. The total was 60 to 70 million, according to State Department estimates; 110 million, according to the United Nations. Minefields at that time covered an area greater than ten times the size of New York City. They were mostly located far away from major cities, in fields, forests, and trails that were slowly being occupied by rural populations.

By the end of the 1980s, NGOs started noticing the impact of landmines on civilians in some of the world's poorest countries. In 1992, six of these organizations founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the group that would be ultimately responsible for the nearly worldwide restriction of the weapon.

"There wasn't one particular event [that triggered the creation of the ICBL]," Kasia Derlicka, the current Director of ICBL told Univision News. "The movement grew over the years with people and organizations working on the ground and seeing the devastation landmines caused, and growing convinced that the only way to stop them was to ban them."

For more than five years, the ICBL pushed for the passage of a comprehensive treaty to disallow the use, production, and stockpiling of landmines with the help of the Canadian government, delegations from several nations, NGOs and the aid of celebrities like Princess Diana and Jordan's Queen Noor. In November 1997, the organization and Jody Williams, its director at the time, received the Nobel Peace Prize. A few weeks later, 121 countries signed the historic Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and Their Destruction, known as the Ottawa Treaty for the city in which it was signed. (The U.S. and Russia were notorious absentees.)Colombia ratified the treaty in 2000, and just like the other 160 current state parties to the treaty, agreed to destroy its stockpile of mines, to ban the use of the weapon, to demine all affected areas and to offer adequate assistance to all victims.

Mines, however, are still used regularly in the country's ongoing war, one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts. New fields are mined every day and the guerrillas are choosing ever more potential targets to hit the armed forces. The percentage of military victims in Colombia is, in fact, disproportionately high compared to the rest of the world. According to PAICMA, 62 percent of those killed and maimed by mines were members of the armed forces, almost three times the rate found in most of the other nations affected by these weapons. The government, despite its best efforts, can't keep up with the growing number of victims, according to several NGOs.

"While they are still in the armed forces, they receive all the treatment they need," Mario González, the Director of the Fundación Víctimas Minas Antipersonales (VICMA), an organization that offers job training and medical donations to civilians and retired military mine victims. "Afterwards, they are forgotten. They don't receive sufficient educational and financial support."

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.

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