MEDELLÍN, Colombia – The numbers say it all: Landmines buried by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are still victimizing Colombians.
The explosive devices have killed 1,935 people and wounded 7,597 over the past 21 years. Of the 9,532 victims, 3,584 are civilians, of whom 10% are children, according to the Presidential Program of Comprehensive Action against Antipersonnel Mines (PAICMA).
And nowhere in the Andean nation are landmines a bigger problem than in Antioquia, the department with the highest number of victims.
From 1990 to September 2011, a total of 173 died and 822 were wounded in landmine explosions in Antioquia, which has a population of 5.6 million. This year, four died and 33 were injured as the result of FARC landmines, according to PAICMA-Antioquia data.
“Landmines are spread out mainly over rural areas, but also in places close to schools,” said Julián Rendón Cardona, the department’s secretary of government.
Of all the victims in Antioquia, 242, which includes the 46 who died and 196 injured, were under the age of 18, according to Action against Antipersonnel Mines (MAP), a departmental organization in charge of landmine risk prevention in Antioquia.
Juan Diego Figueroa’s life changed because of a FARC landmine. While working in a rural area in the Argelia municipality of Antioquia seven years ago, his machete hit a landmine.
In an instant, he lost his hands and an eye and was left with scars that will forever remind him of that terrible day.
“It’s hard for me to remember [exactly] what happened,” said Figueroa, 28-year-old father of two. “Life now is very hard for me.”
The government of Antioquia and MAP doesn’t want Figueroa’s tragic experience to happen again, which is why it’s made educating residents about landmines a top priority.
Here’s what MAP says one should do when finding a landmine:
Tell others nearby you’ve found a landmine;
Retrace your footprints – taking one step at a time – and return to safety;
As you walk, pay close attention for any other explosive devices;
Once you are safe, alert neighbors, family members and authorities to what you’ve seen.
Population at risk
The government of Antioquia has doubled its efforts to inform the population about the danger of landmines.
“Through the ‘Let’s Take Care of You, Me, Us’ Program we contribute to reducing accidents [by landmines] among the civilian population and acknowledge the victims’ rights in priority municipalities of the department of Antioquia,” said Paola González, who coordinates education for the government of Antioquia’s initiative, which is managed by the Directorate to Assist Individuals and financed by MAP.
The initiative has led authorities to hold 56 training workshops in 49 of the department’s municipalities deemed to have the most landmines.
A total of 1,351 rural teachers, 259 public health professionals and several authorities from 1,226 institutions have been trained in prevention and how to treat landmine victims, González said.
“The teachers incorporated the ‘Let’s Take Care’ program into their everyday work to the point of inventing riddles and verses easy for their students to memorize,” she added.
“In the water or on the ground/Is where I might be/don’t dare touch me/because there will be an accident,” is one of the poems used to warn children of landmines.
“The advice for hiking around the forest has changed completely,” said William Gómez, a teacher from the Frontino municipality, where 9,504 of its 25,000 residents live in at-risk areas for landmines. “For example, we tell people if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up; or how to choose what paths to take.”
Gómez said in addition to landmine risk prevention, authorities also teach locals how to prevent being burned while processing sugarcane, being drowned when streams and rivers rise quickly and being buried under a landslide.
“We intervene in a practical way, with simple language,” said Luis Sepúlveda, an elementary school teacher who works in the municipality of Urrao, another locality in Antioquia where landmines are present. “The children talk about strange things that appear on the sidewalks, and that is where special care must be taken in prevention, since [landmines] look different, which is why education always must be kept up-to-date.”
The ‘Let’s Take Care’ Program has been so successful it’s being replicated in the departments of Tolima, Nariño and Chocó, González said.
Landmines, a public health issue
Antioquia government officials also have improved treatment for landmine victims; Figueroa, for example, receives psychological therapy and financial assistance.
One program, the “Local Assistance Route,” offers a protocol for treating landmine victims and was first used in the municipality of Valdivia, said Janet Sánchez, a MAP coordinator and nurse at the San Juan de Dios Hospital.
“In Valdivia, we are aware of 18 landmine fields,” Sánchez said. “When we get to the victim, we proceed with rescuing him or her, and transporting him or her to the health center in Valdivia, where a record is made of what happened. The victim’s family is directed to take the case to the ombudsman, who is in charge [beginning] the process to receive government aid.”
The program, which has received $4.538 billion pesos (US$2.269 million) in funding from the Antioquia government the past four years, also is being used to help victims in the departments of Santander, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, Cundinamarca and Meta, according to PAICMA.
The 2008 Individual Compensation Program mandates that victims of landmines and other explosive devices, as well as other kinds of attacks, have the right to treatment and compensation proportional to the injuries suffered.