De-Mining In Colombia: The Slow Process Of Clearing Away Land Mines

Jan 2, 2018

Colombia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Now that a peace deal has been reached in that South American country, the slow process of getting rid of landmines is underway.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to go to Colombia to spend time with a team of people working to get rid of landmines across the country. The landmines are a legacy of one of the longest guerrilla conflicts in modern history. The war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known as the FARC began in the 1960s. Just over a year ago, the Marxist rebels agreed to a peace accord. They've been slowly turning in their weapons. NPR's Jason Beaubien went out with deminers in the Cauca region of western Colombia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The members of a demining team from Handicap International are huddled next to a cement wall as they get ready to remotely detonate an explosive they just found.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEAUBIEN: The homemade bomb was a glass baby food bottle packed with gunpowder. It was lying in an overgrown lot in a fork of a busy road just a few yards from a major highway. After the blast, the team returned to look at the remnants of the device and discovered the bottle had been packed with ball bearings.

ADERITO ISMAEL: And those can become a bullet. If they just explode, it can become a bullet.

BEAUBIEN: Aderito Ismael, who leads Handicap International's demining operation in Colombia, is originally from Mozambique. He spent nearly two decades deactivating explosives all over the world. He says the mines in Colombia are particularly complicated.

ISMAEL: Most of the countries and most of the places I've seen mines - they are conventional mines made in factories. In Colombia, most of the mines found - they are mostly homemade mines with different techniques, different shapes, different types. That makes a big difference.

BEAUBIEN: Because as Ismael's teams are clearing a suspected minefield, nearly every piece of trash has to be treated as if it might be an improvised explosive device. Exactly how many mines were laid across Colombia during the decades-long war is unknown, but the Colombian government estimates the country is the second-most mined nation in the world after Afghanistan. Government soldiers have been working on clearing explosives for over a decade. Now as Colombia moves forward with the peace process, several nonprofits including Handicap International are joining in the effort. The next day, the team is up at 5 in the morning and headed back to the village where they blew up the baby bottle the day before.

VIRGILIO CIFUENTES: Buenos dias.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Buenos dias.

BEAUBIEN: Before they start work, the supervisor of the team, Virgilio Cifuentes, gathers the crew of a dozen people for a quick pep talk and an inspection. He checks everyone's protective gear, including blast-proof chest plates and heavy Plexiglas visors. Then they walk over to the demining site. Trucks rumble past the overgrown plot. There's a minivan bus stop on one side. Kids heading to school used to cut through the lot before it was fenced off.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

JOHANNA GALUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: Johanna Galuis, the field leader, orders everyone on the site to put on their bulky visors as the clearing work begins. The deminers are slowly removing the top 5 inches of soil from a section of the lot. Galuis watches over a colleague as she delicately cuts through a tangle of roots with a pair of clippers. Galuis says this is an incredibly slow process.

GALUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BEAUBIEN: "It's taken three months," Galuis says, "to clear this relatively small lot, which is probably only 20 or 30 yards long on each side." This demining team is mainly young people. The youngest is 19. Half of them are women. In a country where unemployment remains a big problem, the position pays reasonably well. Galuis, however, says for most of the team, this is more than just a job. She views it as patriotic work. She says this is her way of contributing to the national peace process.

GALUIS: (Through Interpreter) For me and for all Colombians, this is an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted.

BEAUBIEN: But it's also a sacrifice. The teams live for six weeks at a stretch in a tented camp. For Galuis, who has two young children, this means she's away from her family for nearly two months at a time. Her husband is also a deminer, but he works for a different team in another part of Colombia. Their children live with her brother. But Galuis points out that this isn't a job that you do forever. Hopefully in a few years, Colombia will be free of mines or at least free of most mines, and then she'll do something else. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, La Venta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.