Christmas preparations are in full swing at the church offices in San Vicente del Caguán, in the department of Caquetá. Groups of children sit cross-legged on the patio, cutting stars out of shiny construction paper and hanging ornaments on the bushes. In a small meeting room, I sit down to speak with Sonia (not her real name), one of the community leaders for mine action.
Sonia is young, but—like San Vicente as a whole—exhausted by war. In the early 2000s, San Vicente became the epicenter of a failed peace process between the FARC and the government, in which the creation of a cease-fire zone allowed the guerrilla to regroup. To stop the Army operations in the area, the guerrilla planted hundreds of anti-personnel mines around the town and its surrounding fields. The area remains one of the most intensely contaminated areas of Colombia (itself among the countries with the highest number of landmines and explosive remnants of war, ERW). Coming into San Vicente, I had seen the demining operations by the side of the road, with Army specialists in full protective gear perched tensely over small squares of soil, patiently combing the soil for casings. My local guide had pointed at the dense overgrowth covering vast fields–fertile land left fallow due to the suspicion there are still landmines.
Since the final agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC was signed, in December 2016, demining efforts have intensified in this part of Colombia, with the Army and eight agencies working in priority areas. Yet accidents continue to happen. The day before my visit with Sonia, a farmer had one of his legs blown off under the knee when he stepped on a mine in a nearby field. “He was airlifted by the Army,” says Sonia, noting that his community just recently had been identified for mine action.
Sonia recounts the successes, but also mentions the need to build confidence. The government broadcasts images of villagers playing football matches on decontaminated fields, but in reality the locals won’t step on that land until they have tested it the old-fashioned way: by sending their cattle to graze on it.“ I ask Sonia whether she herself would walk across one of the demined fields. She pauses. “No.”
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