For Colombians, A Growing Peril From Land Mines
Nation Logs More Casualties Than Anyplace Else in World

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."

Half shelter, half rehab center, the Jesus of Nazareth Home -- as the center is called -- is a whirl of activity. A gaggle of children scrambles along hallways, women cook hearty lunches in a spacious kitchen and staff members dart from room to room for 12 hours or more a day.

Nurses clean wounds, which often take weeks to heal and are constantly in danger of being infected. A psychologist counsels newly arrived victims. A physical therapist, Marcela Miranda, helps prepare stumps for prosthetics, which are made at a small machine shop nearby. She then teaches her charges how to use them, the idea being to send them back to their farms and livelihoods.

The work is not easy. Nor is it free from heartbreak, especially when it comes to the disfigured children.

One boy, Alex Florez, 11, has lost an eye and had his face mangled. He mopes around the shelter, looking mortified and self-conscious about what happened to him. A girl, Monica Ardila, 10, who lost an arm and her eyesight, still admits crying from time to time, even though she says she feels happy again. Moises Vega, 9, explained how self-conscious he had been because of his injuries.

"I felt incomplete," he said, "because I had one hand, and everyone else had two."

Farmers who never had reason to venture into the city wound up here, far from their fields. They had limbs amputated. They were handed hospital bills. They suffered through the anguish of knowing they weren't whole anymore.

"I had to practically give away my farm to pay for the hospital bills," said Ofelia Pinto, an older woman who wears dark glasses to hide her scarred face. Her hands, too, were mangled by a land mine. "I wanted to throw myself into the river."

It is a sentiment that therapists here frequently encounter -- and work hard to control.

Oscar Izquierdo, 36, is among those desperately trying to find direction once more. He lost his leg in war-torn Arauca province. Now, he is worried how he'll feed his five children. And as he looks down at the stump where his right leg ends, he mourns the things he'll never do again.

"Soccer -- that was my passion," he said. "But there's a moment when you know you can't do it anymore. You can't do sports anymore."

Using crutches to move around, it is hard to picture Izquierdo having much of a normal life. He tries to put on a brave face, saying he's thankful for the psychological help. "I will get ahead," he said.

But after running this center for 11 years, Gonzalez knows it won't be easy. She said the center is prepared to keep people here for months -- even longer, if need be.

"We make sure they're rehabilitated, that they don't leave for a farm after losing hands and eyes -- what would they do there if they're not ready?" she said.

There are some who will never go back to the farms.

Pedro Lozano, 37, lost his eyesight when a mine exploded while he was swinging a machete on the farm where he worked. He will never plow fields or herd cattle again. He knows that. Still, he tries to be upbeat, talking about what is positive about his new life.

He said he reads Braille now -- an achievement for someone who knew only how to write his name when he could see. And he spends hours each day carefully weaving baskets, complete with bright orange and green sunflowers, which are sold in local markets.

A few feet away, amid workbenches and tools, is where Pallares paints.

He was only 19 when he was injured and, in the years since, he's been in one hospital after another. Eight surgeries were needed to fix his face. He's now been at Jesus of Nazareth since 1998 -- and there are no plans to leave soon.

The painting, he said, has helped in ways he could never imagine. "My mind just converts into colors," he said, "and I forget everything. It helps de-stress me completely. Art has been such a great help for me."

Pallares said he is now trying his hand at every style of painting that he can. He talks about being the complete artist, getting past the bucolic scenes. Perhaps the country's roiling conflict will become fodder for his art. Or even nudes, he said with a smile.

"I'm still useful for society," he said. "What I had needed to find was something that would match my abilities. What I found was painting."

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