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Q&A: “If You Find Yourself in a Minefield, Shout for Help”

Constanza Vieira interviews ANDRÉS, a teenager in a war zone

CALOTO, Colombia, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - Putting on a white t-shirt or wearing olive-green pants can be life-or-death decisions in the conflict zone in the steep Andes mountains in western Colombia where 14-year-old Andrés lives and attends eighth grade.

Of every 1,000 children who complete primary school in this indigenous region in the northern part of the western province of Cauca, 500 do not go on to secondary school, and of the 500 who do, only 10 end up graduating. There are few educational opportunities, but there are plenty of opportunities to be recruited by the left-wing guerrillas or the army or police.

The Fundación Tierra de Paz (Land of Peace Foundation), a local partner of the Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, the global humanitarian assistance agency of Germany’s Protestant churches – the only European humanitarian aid agency that focuses on the impact of the war on children and adolescents – is active in the area.

If someone happens to find themselves trapped in the middle of a minefield in the remote rural area where Andrés lives, no one is likely to turn to the police for help. In fact, the mere mention of doing so provokes waves of laughter among local residents, who are all too aware that they have been abandoned to their fate in the midst of the eternal confrontation between the security forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel group that emerged in 1964.

So besides his geography, math or Spanish lessons, Andrés learns that the landmines planted by the FARC, or the grenades and bullets left scattered by the soldiers or the guerrillas, are not toys.

Every day the children line up in the schoolyard to listen to their teachers reminding them about what to do if there’s a landmine alert, or if fighting breaks out. The teachers have been trained by Tierra de Paz, based on a collectively designed risk prevention plan.

IPS spoke to Andrés, whose real name, and the name of his village, have not been used for security reasons.

IPS: What is it like to live in the midst of the civil war? ANDRÉS: Before Tierra de Paz got involved here, our situation was really bad. In the conflict, we didn’t have any way to defend ourselves or know how to handle the different situations. If fighting broke out, we didn’t know what to do.

Since we started to work with Tierra de Paz, we have gradually learned how to handle these situations. A lot of work has been done at our school. They have inculcated that in us, how to act, how to handle these cases.

IPS: What are you supposed to do when you find unexploded ordnance? A: Unexploded ordnance is constantly showing up. They told us that when we run across it, the first thing we should do is mark it, mark the place where it is located, and find an adult or someone who has some experience. And, in case that person is also afraid, or doesn’t know how to handle the situation, turn to a person who can remove the object.

IPS: And what do you do when you come across an anti-personnel landmine? A: Cases of landmines have occurred in our village. Personally I haven’t had that experience, but a classmate of mine did. He found himself in a minefield, and he figured out how to get out of there. He picked up a big stone, and tossed it, and then he would step on it, pick it up and toss it again. And he managed to get out.

IPS: And what do you think about that technique? Do you think it’s good, or dangerous? A: In first place, it’s dangerous.

IPS: Why? A: Because the stone could fall on a mine, and make it explode. The rock could shatter and the splinters would fly everywhere.

But also, where the rock falls, if it doesn’t explode, you know that’s a safe place to step.

IPS: What are you supposed to do when you are on a path and all of a sudden you realise there are landmines? A: If you find yourself in a minefield, you try to leave by following a track where you know people have already walked. Or you stand still, if you know there are mines all around you. You stand still and ask for help.

IPS: How do you ask for help? A: Well, by shouting (laughter).

IPS: What else have they taught you? A: In school they have drilled into us that we have to wear a white shirt, so we aren’t mistaken for a member of any armed group. You’re not supposed to use clothes that look at all like a uniform. You stay on the busiest paths and roads, and you don’t take shortcuts. Let’s see, what else? In case you find unexploded ordnance, you shouldn’t throw stones at it, or move it or anything at all; you’re supposed to leave it alone and go and tell someone as soon as possible.

IPS: In this region, there have been cases of people injured by unexploded ordnance, and there are constant reports about accidents. Why do you think these accidents with explosives happen? What was done wrong? Is it just that it’s difficult to prevent accidents 100 percent? A: Yeah, they’re working on that. But the problem is that this conflict is so big, and it’s not easy to control. People do what they can, but it’s not possible to completely control it. It gets out of anyone’s hands. It’s very difficult to deal with.

IPS: Have there been serious problems with landmines in your village? A: Well, so far there haven’t been any victims.

IPS: But landmines have been removed and deactivated? A: Yes.

IPS: Has the number of landmines increased? A: Well there aren’t so many anymore. At one time they announced that the manual eradication of illegal (drug) crops was going to start in this area. So lots of landmines were planted then. But the mines have gradually been found, and there aren’t so many now.

IPS: Are there still illegal drug crops in the area? A: Yes, there are illicit crops. That’s what people live on in the area.

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