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Land Mines -- Deadly Tradition in Colombia
Published on Sunday, August 12, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Going Backwards
Land Mines -- Deadly Tradition in Colombia
War-torn country the only one in this hemisphere where devices are still being sown, U.N. says
by Karl Penhaul
 
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Edgar Moreno still feels phantom pains where his toes and foot used to be.

His left leg was blown off by a land mine a decade ago as he herded cows in a war-ravaged corner of northeast Colombia.

"The explosion blew me six feet into the air. I saw the cows running away, and I fell back down into the crater. My left leg was completely destroyed, and my right leg was badly burned, and I fell unconscious," he said, speaking at a workshop in a Bogota clinic where he now helps make artificial limbs for other land-mine victims.

Colombia, gripped by a 37-year-old civil conflict, is the only country in this hemisphere where land mines are still being sown, according to U.N. monitors.

Estimates by the army and independent land mine monitors put the total number of mines in Colombia at about 130,000 across 77,000 square miles -- about half the area of California -- in 25 of the country's 32 provinces.

The numbers may be small compared to traditional land mine black spots in Africa or Cambodia. But the problem is getting dramatically worse as the long- running war between Marxist guerrillas, state security forces and right-wing paramilitary gangs continues.

In 1991, there were just 14 reported land mine incidents. Already this year, 88 people have been killed or maimed by land mines through mid-July, according to the Colombian Campaign Against Land Mines, affiliated with the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign To Ban Land Mines.

In typical wars around the globe, 20 percent of land-mine victims are civilians while the majority are combatants, International Campaign to Ban Land Mines findings show. But in Colombia, more than double that proportion are noncombatants -- usually poor peasants and children in remote rural areas where the fighting is most bitter.

It was New Year's Day 1992 when Moreno stepped on the land mine -- the day after he played his last game of soccer and danced for the last time with his girlfriend in his hometown, Carmen de Chucuri in Santander province.

Four peasants heard the blast from the homemade mine, presumably planted by leftist rebels. They carried him for four hours to the nearest first aid post.

Moreno then spent the next 2 1/2 days on a stretcher in the back of a beer truck, bumping over remote roads to the nearest hospital that could treat his wounds. Twice, guerrillas suspecting he was a government soldier dragged Moreno out of the truck at illegal roadblocks and beat him.

"Hatred and the desire for revenge is normal after something like this. I just think the armed factions are losing sight of their aims and their ideology and are just fighting against the civilian population. Anti-personnel mines are deadly and disgusting," Moreno said.

The Colombian military says it is no longer sowing mines, but it has an estimated 20,000 in place, defending fixed positions such as barracks and communications infrastructure.

Army sources say outlawed insurgents on both the left and right may be sowing 26,000 new devices each year.

The two main leftist guerrilla groups and ultraright-wing paramilitaries all routinely lay the devices -- sometimes homemade, sometimes purchased on the international black market, according to Colombian experts.

Colombia has signed -- but not yet ratified -- the 1999 Ottawa Convention banning the use, stockpiling and export of anti-personnel mines. Signatory nations are required to destroy their stockpiles of mines within four years and remove all mines in the ground within 10 years.

The United States and Cuba are the only two nations in the Americas not to sign the treaty, but Colombia is seen as the region's worst transgressor.

"Colombia is the problem as far as land mines in the Western Hemisphere are concerned. As the war gets worse, the mining problem will get worse, too. I'm not optimistic," said Carel de Rooy, regional head of the United Nations Children Fund.

UNICEF works closely with the Colombian Campaign Against Land Mines, setting up workshops and self-help groups to warn civilians of the risks from mines. The office of campaign director Diana Roa is piled high with bright yellow tape marked "Danger Mines." Her desk is littered with red cardboard plaques bearing a white skull and crossbones.

"The problem is very serious, and the number of victims is growing fast. The conflict is getting worse, and mines are increasingly being sown in areas used by the civilian population," Roa said.

The prospects for mine-removal programs are remote as long as the fighting continues. The hit-and-run nature of Colombia's war, with constantly shifting battle lines, makes it almost impossible for any of the illegal armed groups to draw up accurate maps of their minefields.

The largest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is bogged down in on-again-off-again peace talks with the government. One of the items on a 12-point negotiating agenda is the so-called "humanization of the conflict" -- an effort to enforce minimum rules of engagement designed to limit the impact of the war on innocent civilians. But there has been no agreement on any part of the agenda.

According to anti-land mine campaigner Roa, the Colombian army's state military industry, known as Indumil, produced its MAP-1 mines for $5 to $7 each before production ceased in late 1998.

Guerrillas and the paramilitary forces build their own devices even more cheaply, either in secret weapons factories or on the battlefield. Roa calculated that even a fairly sophisticated homemade mine, with anti-handling mechanisms such as mercury tilt switches and photoelectric cells, cost just $2. 50.

But it is the victims such as Moreno who end up paying the real price of land mines.

His girlfriend abandoned him when she found out he had lost a leg. His dream of joining the army died. He spent the months after his accident getting drunk and doing odd jobs, including spray-painting bicycles and old refrigerators.

Now Moreno has kicked his alcohol habit and is working at the same clinic that fitted him with a artificial leg. He molds and polishes prostheses for other land mine victims and people suffering physical disabilities.

The clinic, named the Colombian Center for Integral Rehabilitation, has pioneered treatment for mine victims here. Already this year, the clinic has treated eight children disabled by land mines. Most of its clients are civilians, but occasionally it fits police agents and even guerrillas with artificial limbs.

The majority are desperately poor, so the clinic has developed functional low-cost alternatives to imported prostheses. An artificial leg produced in its workshops costs between $360 and $700, compared to about $2,200 for an imported one.

Founder Jeanette de Saravia says that the clinic's services for land mine victims and their families include psychological counseling and the chance to meet other survivors who, like Moreno, have found new lives after their accidents.

"We're not just interested in giving somebody a leg or an arm," she said. "More than giving a prosthesis, our aim is to give them back faith and hope. Otherwise it's like the bottom has dropped out of their world."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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