Arsenio stops a moment and with a gesture to his face that denotes some deep thinking he tells me something like "At least I'm alive and complete, there are people that have been hit really hard." His optimism amazes me, he always seems to be ready to show his good mood despite his conditions and the heavy story he carries with him.
In 2013, on the afternoon of the 13th of November, Arsenio was on the way back to his temporary house in Tarazá, a small municipality in the Antioquia Department, when he tripped and fell over a landmine. Fire, a strident buzz and then total darkness. He lost almost all of his fingers and his chest was pierced by shrapnel. But his face took the brunt of the explosion and since that moment a black veil covers his eyes.
Arsenio Conde, now 27 years old and totally blind, is part of a red list of victims of landmines in Colombia, a list that is growing day after day. Since 1990 more than 11,000 people, both civilian and military have been injured and killed by landmines in Colombia (there have been more than 2 thousands victims since 2010). These figures make Colombia the second most affected country in the world, after Afghanistan. However in Colombia almost the totality of the landmines are makeshift low cost devices, unlike the majority of the conflicts where these explosives items come from industrial factories. Most of these landmines were installed by FARC and ELN leftist guerrillas in the recent years of this infinite conflict. But paramilitary groups and organized criminal gangs have also used landmines to bolster their power. Even the regular army was officially using industrial landmines until 2002 when Law 759 came into force, requiring the army to stop the use of landmines and the begin the clearance of previously mined fields.
Like Arsenio, there are many other people suffering from the same tragedy. The loss of inferior limbs is the most common consequence of these bombs popularly known as "leg-breakers". But together with these casualties many others have died in these explosions. It is estimated that some 2,200 people have been killed by landmines and cluster munitions since 1990.
Mrs. Alba Franco, today a widow and internally displaced person living in Bogota, says that one morning at dawn her husband Mr. Pedro Cuello (52), Adriano Arteaga (50) and another gold miner, set off to clean a gold mine in Anorí, a western municipality of Antioquia where fierce and constant battle between guerrillas and the army was making their job almost impossible and highly dangerous. Miner's families had decided to move away and try their chance in the surrounding areas. Minutes after the men's departure a massive blast could be heard over the heavy exchange of bullets. Mrs. Alba immediately was packing the few things she could carry when the explosion shook the house. It was then that arrived the news about the incident. Mr. Adriano, with his face almost completely destroyed and his body chewed up by landmine shrapnel was quickly rushed off to the hospital in a military helicopter. More than 3 hours passed until neighbors and friends, paralyzed by fear to another blast could recover the body of Mr. Pedro, the explosion had thrown him meters away and destroyed his back, severely damaging his organs, tissues and bones. Another civilian family was left mourning and drifting after their loved one's death and their forced displacement.
Today Adriano Arteaga is getting ready for a check up. It seems that the only eye he has is recovering some vision after a corneal transplant. He lives at the San Camilo temporary shelter in Medellin, Antioquia's capital and Colombia's second largest city. San Camilo shelter is a place dedicated to supporting and guiding victims like Adriano and Arsenio through the medical and bureaucratic maze that landmine victims face. Adriano says that his work in gold mines afforded his family a decent life and even a good education for his daughters. Gold "nuggets" were always around as were the battles between the different factions in Anori. The Antioquia region has suffered heavily throughout the Colombian conflict and as a result the use of landmines has been commonplace. They have become not only tools of attack, and defense, but also to intimidate, protect illegal crops and even confine the population to specific territorial spaces.
Figures from Direction for Action Against Landmines (DAICMA in spanish) show Antioquia has had some 2,500 landmine victims in the last 25 years. That is more than double the number in Meta, the second most affected region in Colombia. It is precisely in the remote mountains of Antioquia where recent projects aimed at alleviating the problem of landmines situation are focusing their work. One example of this is a joint demining pilot project that had come out of the Habana peace accords. A demining project that counts, for first time, with FARC logistic support. However this work has been temporarily put on hold as a result of the accidental death of one government deminer on the 14th of July. Nevertheless this pilot experiment remains a hope and a model for future collaborations in the demining process.
Although the project is new, the task has been carried out over recent years by different demining battalions of the army, specifically in places where no recent guerrilla activity has been registered. Halo Trust, an international NGO focused on civil humanitarian demining, has been on Colombian ground since 2013. Today there are more than 150 local workers trained in mine detection, removal, and deactivation of these explosive devices.
With the logisitical coordination of Halo and the financial support of countries from the EU, the United States, Japan, and even Afganisthan, young men and women from affected areas are being trained for this important mission. Their physical health, knowledge of the local environment and weather patterns, as well as their close relations with local communities make them the best prepared to tackle the demining process. While better salaries and schedules would obviously be welcome it seems most are satisfied with being agents for positive change in their communities. For these workers the effort, and arduous trips up and down the region's mountains and valleys, the prolonged distance from family, and the high risks of the work are instantly rewarded when a landmine is successfully removed and deactivated.
For the Colombian military the demining process is also of strategic importance. While the Colombian armed forces far out gun their guerilla opponents, the use of landmines has somewhat leveled the playing fields by rendering the logistical advantages useless for a ground where guerrillas have constant presence while army randomly visits.
Casualties and wounded soldiers are a serious problem for the national army. And the significance of landmines is enormous when you realize that almost 2/3 of recent landmine victims have been soldiers. Mine injuries and amputations have become commonplace making mines one of the most harmful weapons of war against the Colombian armed forces.
The agreement for joint demining signed in Habana is an important first step, however fragile it may be. Today many in civil society hope it represents a shift and a new awareness of the lethal consequences these devices present for population, mostly for childhood and workers of rural areas.