BOGOTÁ — Soldiers stretch on the parade grounds and playing field of the Escuela de Ingenieros Militares as if preparing for a sporting event. Lighthearted banter fills the Bogotá morning air. But despite appearances, serious work has begun: these are military personnel who have been injured and, in many cases, severely maimed by landmines.
All but one of Colombia’s 32 departments are cursed with landmines, and at Bogota’s Centro de Rehabilitacion del Ejercito (CRE), everyone is all too aware of the damage and suffering wrought by these instruments of war.
The clinic, officially known as the Batallón de Sanidad, serves as an office and rehabilitation center and is manned by doctors, therapists, social workers, orthopedic surgeons, psychiatrists and physiotherapists. All these health professionals are here to attend to those wounded by homemade landmines that plague Colombia’s rural areas.
No single armed group in Colombia is solely responsible for these artisanal “quiebrapatas” or leg breakers, constructed from deadly explosives and hidden in ordinary household containers like plastic bottles and bags to waterproof them. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the paramilitaries typically use the same approach: place these booby-trapped devices to inflict as many casualties as possible, chasing villagers from strategic positions. In many cases, landmines have been hidden on or near paths leading to a town’s water source.
Now, the Colombian Army’s Engineering Division – and the “Coronel Gabino Gutiérrez” Battalion in particular, which is dedicated to demining secured towns and rural areas - has taken on the role of “humanitarian demining.”
San Carlos is a success story
This ambitious effort differs from conventional military practice in that three steps take place before demining begins, said Col. Carlos Ivan Cadena Montenegro, commanding officer in charge of the humanitarian demining division.
“In March 2011 we were able to completely rid perhaps one of Colombia’s most violent towns — San Carlos, Antioquía — of landmines,” he said. “It was the first town to achieve this status in Colombia. First, the town had been secured from all aggressors. In the case of San Carlos, the local FARC militia had demobilized, permitting us access. Second, the municipality requested our help, and third, we can ensure there will be no further conflict in this town.”
San Carlos was an extreme situation, he said, passed back and forth between FARC guerrillas, ELN rebels and then various paramilitaries over the years. Even the town's central plaza - just 67 miles from the bustling city of Medellin, and neighboring the popular weekend destination and resort town of Guatape - had to be demined.
“We were able to secure the return of 2,500 displaced families to San Carlos, a total of 10,000 people driven from their homes,” Cadena said.
Demining process continues in earnest
But there still is much work to do. This year, Cadena's team hopes to finish demining the towns of Zambrano in Bolivar, Carmen de Chucuri in Santander and Granada in Antioquía. Overall, 72 municipalities in 12 departments across Colombia have been given priority for this project.
The key, said Cadena, is that each of these towns receiving humanitarian aid from military engineers must promise to reactivate the local economy. For example, Granada — in the department of Antioquía — is located just eight miles from the main highway linking Bogotá and Medellín.
Due to Granada’s precarious situation, this short trip over mountainous terrain used to take six hours. Now, says Cadena, “it can be done in 40 minutes.”
Antioquia is relatively accessible compared to the other Colombian departments most affected by mines - Putumayo, Cauca, Caqueta, Nariño, Meta and Norte de Santander. Virtually all of Colombia's landmines are found in these mountainous, rural areas.
The complexities of the civil conflict and the topography make the military engineers’ jobs particularly tough. And three years of heavy rains have triggered landslides throughout Colombia, displacing landmines and shifting their positions significantly.
PAICMA: Nearly 10,000 landmine victims since 1990
The Presidential Program for Comprehensive Action Against Antipersonnel Mines (PAICMA) estimates that 65 per cent of all municipalities in the country are affected by landmines. And at least 9,884 soldiers and civilians have been victimized by landmines since 1990, according to PAICMA - including 2,204 in Antioquía alone.
At least 1,065 Colombians were killed or maimed in 2005 by stepping on mines — more than either Afghanistan or Cambodia, countries that have been ravaged by civil war. FARC, ELN and other violent groups have planted more than an estimated 100,000 explosive devices to protect cocaine crops.
Many soldiers stationed in troubled areas and subsequently injured by landmines end up in the CRE’s Batallon de Sanidad in Bogotá.
Col. Javier Ignacio Ortíz Rozo, the commanding officer in charge of the Batallon de Sanidad, is a much sought-after man. All medical staff and wounded servicemen here report to him.
“The degree of rehabilitation required depends wholly on the amputation and the soldier’s state of mind,” said Ortíz, who deals not only with amputees from landmines but also victims of leishmaniasis and post-traumatic stress disorder. “On average, most servicemen stay here for six months before they are well enough to leave. We treat between 230 and 250 soldiers annually who have been injured by landmines.”
Ortíz’s job is no easy task and not one he can leave behind at the base when he goes home each evening. “I have to treat each person the same as I would anyone else, amputee or not,” he said. “If I don’t force them to get up out of their wheelchair and engage in rehabilitation, they will never succeed.”
Attitude is everything when it comes to recovery
While spirits are high here around the sports field, and those soldiers fortunate enough to have survived landmine explosions are under constant supervision, Ortiz observes that “each exploded mine, in general, represents one death and one injured.”
And this is where Maj. Sara Reyes takes over as the leading physician in charge of rehabilitation here in Bogotá. As a veteran doctor with 14 years of military experience under her belt, the major has pretty much seen everything.
“The issue with landmine victims is that this is an injury with massive impact but — over time and after rehabilitation — one which causes the least limitations in the victim’s lifestyle. Most of our soldiers injured by landmines who arrive here are between 16 and 29 years old, and this gives them far more opportunity to recuperate well.”
So far this year, Reyes has treated 56 amputation cases; that compares to 274 cases in 2011. “A soldier’s recuperation owes a great deal to his or her personality and desire,” she said. “If that soldier does not have the emotional capacity or willpower, we cannot progress.”