“A peace without mine action is an incomplete peace,” were the words in 2017 of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations. In Colombia, within the framework of the Peace Accords between the State and the FARC guerrillas, Humanicemos DH emerged, the first organization made up entirely of ex-combatants dedicated to demining.
A group of 10 people move with agility through the jungle. They build a barricade and prepare to shoot. When they receive the order, a steel bullet hits an explosive device of unknown origin.
This is how the story of an active guerrilla could begin. However, it is the day-to-day of Humanicemos DH, an organization formed by ex-FARC combatants dedicated to humanitarian demining.
They are found in the village of El Pará, in the department of Caquetá, in the Orinoquía, between the Andes mountain range and the Amazon. It is the same territory that they occupied until 2016, before surrendering their weapons and ending the conflict that faced the Colombian State.
In the first phase of work, the peace signatories document the reports of the authorities on the possible location of antipersonnel mines, information that they complement with the communities.
This is how they got to this 3,177 square meter area in which they work. A peasant informed them that the guerrillas had advised him not to return to his farm.
After seven months of work, and about to deliver the mine-cleared area, they find an artifact with the metal detector.
The ex-combatants secure the area, clearing the grass around the mine and surrounding it with sacks of sand to avoid a possible environmental impact after the explosion. By manipulating electrical wiring they prepare the remote firing of a steel bullet.
Before being authorized to shoot, Juan Carlos shows his chest and shows pride in the organization’s new work: “Preventing a mine from harming a family or an animal shows that these bullets are better than the ones we used before.”
They shoot and an explosion is heard. The projectile contained shrapnel inside, was home-made and commonly used by the defunct FARC guerrillas.
Until September 30, Colombia had registered, after five decades of conflict, more than 12,000 victims – of which 2,000 were fatal – by antipersonnel mines. 40% of those affected were civilians.
From commander to supervisor
Germán Balanta was in the ranks of the extinct FARC guerrilla for 34 years. He confesses that when he has time, he goes on his phone and looks at Google Earth. He likes to observe the paths he traveled in his years as a commander.
Hobby that he shares with the observation of the humanitarian demining sites that he leads as a field manager in Humanicemos DH.
The organization, which has more than 100 workers, is the first – worldwide – in which deminers are peace signatories. They operate in risk areas of the municipalities of La Montañita, Solita and Cartagena del Chairá, in the department of Caquetá, and conduct mine education with the communities where they operate.
Humanicemos DH is funded by the European Peace Fund and receives logistical support from the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
From this UN department they received in 2020 the humanitarian demining certificate, which allowed them to start the operation. An advance that for Germán is the essence of reincorporation: “The mines that we used before, we now remove them,” he says, before adding that the main objective is “to repair the communities that were in the middle of the conflict.”
Germán changed command to supervision. Their job is to check that the quality standards required internationally are followed. Humanicemos DH maintains the structures that the FARC had in order to facilitate the transition to civilian life.
The battered roads of Colombia
Humanicemos DH only operates in the department of Caquetá. The administrative part is located in Bogotá, while the field supervisors are in the Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR). In these spaces live the ex-combatants reincorporated to civil life.
During the operation, deminers form camps close to the workplace. They spend four weeks there, before enjoying a week off at the ETCR or with their families.
In El Pará they have a house, where 12 deminers live together. Despite the fact that the distance with the ETCR is 50 kilometers, the poor condition of the road means that travel is restricted to a 4×4 car on a trip of more than three hours.
A road complexity that increases on the way from the house to the demining area. About an hour by car and 40 minutes on foot. In that time they must cross rivers and overcome deep mudflats.
New and old ways
After a hard day’s work in the jungle, the deminers maintain a strong discipline in the house they share in El Pará. Their first activities upon arrival: cleaning of work equipment, personal bathroom and lunch.
Just as they retain that military responsibility, they also evoke memories of their years in arms. Deminers enjoy cancharina: a sweet made with flour, water and sugar. It was the emblem food of the FARC, common on long expeditions due to the ease of its preparation.
But the reincorporation to civil life also allows them to enjoy football on television, the Internet on their mobile phone and to be able to be in contact with their families again. They are the main activities they carry out in their rest time, along with caring for the animals: they have two dogs and a parrot. A special sensitivity after years in the jungle in direct contact with nature.
Inside the house, the deminers are divided into cabins. A coexistence that emulates the FARC camps, maintaining the same responsibility among deminers regardless of gender.
Humanize DH, following the Peace Accords, bets on the gender perspective. By mandate, more than 20% of the workforce must be made up of women. In this demining team in El Pará are Yised and Bibiana.
In addition to congratulating himself for being able to help the communities, Yised is happy to have returned to freedom and to be reunited with his family and his daughter: “I am very happy in this life for being one more in my family, (he spent) a long time without seeing each other. and I can already be by my daughter’s side, sharing with them “.
But the benefits of that new life also bring nostalgia: for Bibiana it was very difficult to go back to sleep in a bed. “Adapting to a bed is difficult and you always suffer to sleep.”
However, being able to work in the jungle, with fellow ex-combatants, makes the transition easier: “Between all of us we always helped each other and that is strange, but here it is not so noticeable.”
Peace bears fruit
With the detonation of the suspicious device, the deminers of El Pará hope to be able to deliver the territory free of mines soon. But it won’t be Humanicemos DH’s first successful mission.
In October, the clearing of an area of about 2,000 square meters in a reservation of Embera Chamí indigenous people, located in El Cedrito on the La Carpa village, one hour from La Montañita, also in the department of Caquetá, made headlines.
The team was led by Elver Gaviria, a former combatant, who a month after the handover went to the reserve to meet with the governor, Emilia González.
In the area there were FARC camps, but also the Army. To avoid the enemy, the placement of antipersonnel mines was common, so these areas were isolated for the communities.
The former president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a signatory of the Peace Accords, assured that in 2021 the country would be free of mines. But it has not been achieved: so far this year more than 100 victims have been documented. However, peace is on the way: in 2006 the all-time high was recorded, with 1,228 victims.
With the work of Humanicemos DH, the community governed by Emilia received the land cleared of mines. There is no risk of adding to the statistics with new victims and at the same time, the peasants have been able to work their fields again.
“This peace is a good thing that we have begun to work on and it is now a reality. We as an indigenous people have a more peaceful and confident life,” says the governor. While listening to the gratitude, Elver Gaviria smiles, the goal of repairing the peace has been fulfilled.