For Colombians, A Growing Peril From Land Mines

Alex Florez, 11, left, joins other young victims of land mines to watch television at the Jesus of Nazareth rehabilitation center in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Alex lost an eye and has undergone skin grafts to reconstruct his face.
Alex Florez, 11, left, joins other young victims of land mines to watch television at the Jesus of Nazareth rehabilitation center in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Alex lost an eye and has undergone skin grafts to reconstruct his face. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 2, 2006

BUCARAMANGA, Colombia -- With heavy brush strokes, Javier Pallares paints blooming flowers, gleaming apples and horses that gallop across the kind of fields where he once worked as a ranch hand. He paints the scenes with his stumps -- holding a paintbrush where his two hands and lower arms were before a land mine blew them off.

Bashfully staring at a visitor with his one good eye -- he lost the other in the blast -- he acknowledges that he had once been despondent, as are so many others whose lives have been shattered by land mines in this region of northern Colombia. He says, however, that things are better now. He has learned to paint here at a rehabilitation center for mine victims like him.

"I lost my hands, my sight," said Pallares, 31, "but I didn't lose my brain."

In recent months, Colombia has recorded more casualties from mines than anywhere else in the world, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In the year ending in June, 1,100 people were killed or maimed by the devices, more than in Afghanistan, Cambodia or the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Unlike those hot spots, Colombia has functioning institutions and flourishes of modernity. Yet that fails to make the news any brighter.

Laid down by Marxist rebels, the devices kill mostly soldiers, terrifying patrols and slowing offensives. But more than 30 percent of the casualties are civilians, almost all of them peasants whose farms have become battlefields in a 42-year-old conflict, according to Colombian Campaign Against Mines, a group that promotes de-mining.

The reason for the surge in casualties has as much to do with politics as it does with war. Since his election in 2002, President Álvaro Uribe has taken a hard stand against the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, pledging to intensify military operations. That, in turn, has led the rebels to lay more mines in an attempt to throw military plans into disarray.

In the late 1990s, Colombia registered 50 casualties a year. Today, according to medical officials and rights groups, it is ill-prepared for the proliferation of new victims. Soldiers are ferried to well-run government facilities that specialize in treating land mine injuries. But there are few centers that cater solely to civilians maimed by the devices. Most victims are sent to large hospitals.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the centers is here in Bucaramanga. In this lovely city of verdant gardens and whitewashed homes in the foothills of the Andes, a woman named Yolanda Gonzalez has built a facility that caters to the poor farmers who increasingly are the mines' victims.

It is not modern, nor does it boast cutting-edge technology. Housed in a drab three-story home, it is instead built on donations scrounged from across the country. But it provides physical therapy to broken bodies and mental healing to victims who often feel that their lives are no longer worth living.

A sturdy, gregarious woman who is a mother figure to those who live here, Gonzalez was once, ironically, a shoemaker.

"I used to make shoes, for people who walk," she explained with a grin. Then a brother was killed by a land mine, spurring her to help wounded mine victims. "This gives me the strength to continue," she said. "This is my duty."


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