Colombia's dirty civil war awash with land mines (Colombia)
Explosives cause 'greatest damage'. Canada helps pay for education programs and medical treatment for civilian victims
Its countryside is infamous for the presence of armed guerrillas and paramilitary groups, but in recent years, a new killer has emerged in Colombia's lush rural terrain.
As the country falls into its fifth decade of civil war, land mines have quickly become the most lethal consequence of the war.
Together with other explosive remnants of war, such as hand grenades and bombs, land mines claim three victims a day, the highest casualty rate in the world, while new mines continue to be sown and used in increasing numbers.
"In this moment, land mines are causing the greatest damage," said Freddy Padilla de Leon, general commander of the Colombian Military Force.
"It's to the point that almost 50 per cent of our military deaths and injuries result from these explosions."
Since the launch of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's Plan Patriota in 2002, the military has been deployed in greater force across the country to regain control of territory held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest guerrilla movement, and the smaller National Liberation Army.
"As a result of our aggressive tactics," Padilla said, "these terrorists are escalating their use of land mines to contain the attacks from the troops and they do so in an indiscriminate way by putting them in many places frequented by the army and civilians alike."
Today, land mines are present in 31 of Colombia's 32 districts and have displaced thousands of farmers, causing 1,103 casualties in 2006, compared with 21 districts and 52 casualties in 1999.
They're often placed around bridges, roads and rivers, but are also found near schools and water supplies in small rural towns. They require minimal training - and only a few dollars - to assemble and have now become the guerrillas' weapon of choice.
Colombia's other outlaw group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, or AUC, formally the country's largest right-wing paramilitary bloc, were not reported to have used land mines in 2006.
The land mines are not as valuable a tool for the paramilitaries, who have a tacit relationship with the Colombian military, as they are for the guerrillas. Nevertheless, during their demobilization ceremonies last February, the AUC submitted only five antipersonnel mines to international inspectors, only to be caught with 500 others in a raid at one of their camps that month. According to the Colombian military, there have been no new reports of their use since 1997, in spite of previous, contradictory allegations.
At the Batallon de Sanidad rehabilitation centre in Bogota, on the same military base as the army's engineering school, healthy soldiers prepare for mine-clearing operations as their injured counterparts pass by in wheelchairs and on crutches.
"Land mines preoccupy us the most," said Frankie San Juan, a recuperating patient who was only 22 when he encountered a mine during a military mission.
After the explosion, he was forced to wait two hours for fighting to subside before he could be moved to a medical facility, but by then, the damage was done.
"Initially, I had lost only my foot, but because of the infecting materials the guerrillas add to their land mines, I ended up losing my entire leg."
In the engineering school, soldiers are assigned to different units responsible for a variety of military objectives.
The explosion and demolition platoons, comprising six members each, including a bomb-sniffing dog, are responsible for minimizing land-mine risks and increasing mobility for troops in combat areas, while another unit is charged with de-mining military bases, and a third group is responsible for humanitarian emergencies that require land-mine clearance in civilian areas.
A proportion of the equipment used in the latter two units has been purchased directly with Canadian funds through the Organization of American States.
"Canada's contribution," Colonel Jairo Bocanegra said, "has helped increase security through the de-mining process."
As a result, Colombia has been able to clear three military mine fields over the past year and respond to a growing number of humanitarian crises.
In addition to its military backing, the Canadian government has also supported mine risk education programs and projects at the Integral Rehabilitation Centre of Colombia, a group financed through international contributions to provide prostheses and free medical treatment to civilian land-mine victims.
In total, Colombia received $404,000 from Canada last year.
The 1997 Ottawa Convention, a treaty that bans the use, stockpiling and export of anti-personnel mines, presently boasts 155 signatories, including Colombia and Canada, said William
McDonough, co-ordinator for the OAS Humanitarian Mine Action Office, which maintains a leadership role in the region on land mines.
"Many donors are hesitant to invest in Colombia while new mines, outside the hands of the government, are being planted every day," he said.
"Canada and the U.S., however, have understood the sense of urgency in the country and have contributed significantly despite the absence of a peace agreement."
Von: 31.03.2007 by Matthew Stein, www.canada.com/