Bogotá, Colombia – As the Colombian government keeps up its efforts to revive a peace deal with the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the tens of thousands of land mines planted by the left-wing guerrilla throughout the decades keep killing and maiming people.
Colombia ranks second, trailing only Afghanistan, on the 2015 list of countries with the most land mines compiled by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
Since the conflict started gathering steam in the early 90s, land mines have killed and wounded more than 11,500 people, both civilians and militaries.
Just this year, 10 people have died and at least 70 people have been hurt by land mines in the South American country, according to the government’s Directorate for Comprehensive Action against Antipersonnel Mines (DICMA).
Reinel Barbosa was 22 when he stepped on a mine that shredded his left leg in Meta, a region in eastern Colombia where he grew up and ended up leaving to avoid having to choose sides.
“Neither FARC guerilla nor the army was an alternative for me,” Barbosa told Fox News Latino. “These were the main options in my region.”
In the past 26 years, more than 1,000 people have been hit by landmines and other buried devices in Meta.
In 2008 he moved to Bogota, the capital, and joined the ranks of 6.9 million Colombians UNHCR displaced by the conflict’s violence.
The FARC planted most of the landmines and improvised explosive devices the government is now struggling to deactivate in the mid-2000s -- the number of land mine victims in Colombia began to spike in 2006, when more than 1,200 victims were reported.
The ELN, Colombia’s other guerrilla group, which recently announced peace talks with the government, also used land mines widely.
As part of the peace negotiations with FARC, in March of 2015 the government agreed to embark in a pilot project aimed at clearing the mines in cooperation with the Norwegian People’s Aids (APN).
“The main goal of this pilot project was to show the country the willingness of peace between the parties,” said APN’s Esteban Rueda, explaining they have been targeting minefields in El Orejón, Antioquia and in Santa Helena, Meta.
Colombian rebels viewed land mines as a cheap, effective way to bog down advancing soldiers.
“In Meta we found mines that are called tipo betún that is a PVC tubing with a wire. In Antioquia, we found mines based on sulfuric acid in a syringe,” Rueda said.
Many of these land mines are rustic mines, handmade even, planted in roads, fields, cow pastures and beneath schoolyards.
The land mine that almost killed Barbosa had been planted [close to] in a cow pasture.
“We were four [guys] visiting a cow pasture and … when we were getting back home I heard the first explosion,” he recalled. “Then my friend Rufino [a childhood friend, who was behind me] started yelling, ‘It’s killing me! It’s killing me!’”
“Like 200 yards ahead another explosion went off, and that’s the one that got me injured,” he said.
Today Barbosa is in charge of the National Network of Organizations of Mine/ERW Survivors and Victims with Disabilities, which advocates for the rights to more benefits and opportunities for survivors.
“What encourages me to move on was the misfortune of all the victims like me. I spent 32 days at the hospital in Villavicencio, and there were 27 amputee victims by landmines among military and civilians. I thought then I was not alone,” Barbosa told FNL.
He said, however, that land mine survivors should be given better treatment and guarantees.
“We are claiming for more equity and social justice. We demanded to President Juan Manuel Santos to assign a disability pension to all the land mine victims with disabilities to dignify our lives as survivors. But the government said no because of the fiscal crisis.”
Many say the 2021 deadline to clear the country of land mines is not realistic. A key problem is the lack of precise information about where and how many mines are planted across the country.
“It is true that the demining has begun, there are certain conditions that are allowing the clearing of land mines,” Barbosa said. “But there are some regions, where the ELN rebels are located - like Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, some parts of Arauca, Norte de Santander, Antioquia and Chocó - where this might be not yet possible,” he said.
Barbosa said that while he supported the peace deal in the past referendum, he believes peace still lays a long way ahead.
“I see peace far away. It is a process that we need still to walk far to get to reach it,” he said.
Ana Luisa Gonzalez is a freelancer living in Bogota, Colombia.