BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Earlier this month, teenager Juan David Perez and his grandmother were walking in the countryside in northern Colombia when the 13-year-old boy came across an unexploded device. He touched it. The device exploded, killing him.
Around the same time, 600 km away along Colombia’s Pacific coast, another 13-year-old boy, Juan Camilo Cordoba, was helping clean up a beach near his local school during a school activity. He stepped on a landmine and was killed.
These two boys are among the 10,413 Colombians wounded or killed by landmines and unexploded ordnance since 1990 - 1,019 of whom were children, according to latest government figures.
Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are responsible for planting many of the landmines found across the country in its nearly 50-year war against the government, according to the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCCM).
The conflict has made Colombia one of the most mine-scarred countries in the world, with one of the highest landmine casualty rates.
Yet as the Colombian government and FARC hold ongoing peace talks in Havana - without a ceasefire on either side - the country’s landmine victim tally continues to rise with little attention to tackling the problem.
“The government’s main focus is to put an end to the conflict. Currently, landmine victims and demining is not a specific talking point at the negotiating table,” said Alvaro Jimenez, head of CCCM, a leading anti-mine group in Colombia.
“A special agreement needs to be reached in Havana on demining certain areas where the fighting is most intense, along Colombia’s border areas and southern provinces, to alleviate the suffering and confinement communities face there and to clear mines near schools and areas used by communities,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even if the government and FARC reach a peace accord, clearing all the landmines and improvised explosive devices that litter Colombia will take more than a decade, Jimenez estimates.
The biggest challenge, he says, is a lack of information about where and how many mines are planted.
“We don’t know the true scale of our landmine problem. Only when we know that can we put a figure on how much demining would cost and how long it would really take,” Jimenez said.
As a signatory of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Colombia has agreed to clear the country of mines by 2021.
“Even if a peace deal was signed today, it’s clear that we won’t have a country clear of mines in eight years time by 2021, the date the international agreement expires,” he said.
It is thought the FARC plant more landmines than any other rebel group in the world, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva.
The leftist rebels make homemade mines using tins of tuna, plastic containers and soft drink bottles, providing the rebels a cheap weapon of war to repel government troops and slow them down.
The drug-running FARC rebels also plant mines in and around coca fields - the raw ingredient of cocaine - to protect their valuable crop grown mainly in rural and jungle areas.
With 70 percent of Colombia’s population of 46 million living in towns and cities, many are not aware that landmines pose a danger to people living in the countryside, says Jimenez.
“Most mines are found in rural areas where 30 percent of the population lives,” Jimenez said. “People in urban areas don’t really understand the country’s landmine problem. They see it as a marginal problem because it doesn’t touch their lives.”
Under historic laws passed in 2011, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos aims to return millions of hectares of land stolen by armed groups to their rightful owners and to encourage the return of more than 4 million Colombians forced off their land because of the conflict.
However, a key obstacle in giving back stolen land and encouraging displaced families to return is that some of it remains mined and therefore unsafe for people to return to.
“Land restitution is being held back because of the landmine problem,” said Jimenez.
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