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Colombia: After 50 years of war, cleaning up landmines key to peace

Colombia's civil conflict has turned large swaths of the country into minefields. Now, there's an effort to try to clean up the mess, and current and former guerrillas could play a leading role.

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    A member of the Humanitarian Demining Battalion of the Columbian Army searches for landmines in Cocorna, Antioquia March 3, 2015. According to the United Nations Mines Action Service, Colombia has the second highest number of victims from landmines in the world, after Afghanistan.
    Fredy Builes/Reuters
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As a child soldier for Colombia's largest guerrilla group, Jairo watched his fellow fighters seed trails and pastures with anti-personnel mines designed to kill and maim.

Sometimes they made careful maps indicating where the explosives were buried. Other times they carried the knowledge in their heads – and when they died in combat the mines became a perilous mystery.

"Even a (guerrilla) commander stepped on one of them," says Jairo, who was forced to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, when he was 15 years old, and who asked to remain anonymous to avoid guerrilla retaliation. "They just forgot where they put it and he stepped on it."

Colombia's half century civil conflict has turned large swaths of the country, quite literally, into a minefield. In 2013, Colombia had more landmine-related deaths than any country in the world except for Afghanistan

Now, however, there's an effort under way to try to clean up the mess. And current and former guerrillas like Jairo could play a leading role.

Government and FARC negotiators in Havana are working on a plan that would allow a few guerrilla members to leave their strongholds and, in conjunction with the military and Norwegian People's Aid, help identify three or four minefields that put civilian populations at risk. The army's de-mining brigade would clear the explosives.

The deal is part of efforts to de-escalate violence even as negotiators have spent more than two years trying to cobble together a comprehensive peace plan.

"The virtue of this measure is that, with or without a peace, the FARC, the government, and international organizations have agreed to start clearing landmines," says Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a former chief of police who was recently named minister of post-conflict. "It's an agreement with limited reach. It's a pilot project that will allow us to learn lessons and learn from this new model."

In a sense, people like Jairo are already proving it works.

The former guerrilla, now 29, is one of a handful of ex-combatants who have been hired by the HALO Trust, a United Kingdom nonprofit and the only organization doing humanitarian mine removal aside from the Colombian military.

Jairo, whose work location needs to be kept secret for security reasons, said that once de-mining operations move to the part of the country where he was an active guerrilla, he'll be able to share information about minefields. Imagining a post-conflict future where the FARC are part of the work force, he said, they would be invaluable in this line of work.

"If anyone knows where the mines are it's the guerrillas," he says. "This would give them a job and let them do something good for the civilian population."

Nick Smart, HALO's program manager in Colombia, said that among the 165 civilians the group has hired there are a handful of former combatants employed through an agreement with the Colombian Agency for Reintegration. The FARC de-mining deal in Havana only gives the hiring strategy more credence.

"We are hoping now that in the future we can roll out this model on a much larger scale as we expand in Colombia," he says. Even so, the former combatants will never make up more than 20 or 30 percent of the work force, he says.

The Havana deal could also offer other benefits.

Under Colombian law, HALO and organizations like it are only allowed to work in "green zones" – areas where there hasn't been fighting for three to five years and where the landmines have no strategic value. That also means many of the landmines they're finding have degraded with time.

The new deal could open the door to operations in areas where the conflict is just dying down.

"With this new agreement we are hoping to be able to go into areas where mines have been laid more recently, where mines are killing people right now," Smart says. "In terms of saving life and limb we could have a greater impact."

Anti-personnel mines have injured or killed at least 11,068 people in Colombia since 1990. In 2013, landmines claimed 368 lives, including those of 165 civilians, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. That puts the South American nation only behind Afghanistan (1,050 casualties) in terms of landmine deaths.

The government says 31 of 32 geographic departments have some type of landmine contamination, and clearing those areas will be key to allowing millions of people who have fled the violence to return home.

That's where organization like HALO come in. Hiring locals to work as landmine investigators, the group canvasses villages until they gather enough information to roughly identify a minefield. Then it's up to trained mine-clearing teams to inch their way through the area with metal detectors and trowels.

In a tiny hamlet about three hours from the city of Medellin, dozens of HALO workers clad in blue Kevlar flack-jackets and blast visors were carefully clipping grass and digging through the dirt like cautious archaeologists.

The village sits on high ground between three municipalities, making it a favored guerrilla lookout. The FARC spiked the area with homemade landmines – sometimes crafted from coffee cans and PVC pipes, and using medical syringes as plungers – to keep the military at bay. But when the guerrillas left around 2007, the mines stayed.

Donaldo Gomez, 53, who has a house near the minefield, says he was removing brush near his home about a year ago when his machete hit the top of a landmine. The explosive – encased in a glass jar – was old and inert, but Mr. Gomez says he had reason to worry: In 2003, his father was killed after stepping on an explosive.

"My father was super sharp and a hard worker," Gomez says. "In his 79 years he never got sick, and then one of those landmines kills him."

Alvaro Jimenez, the national coordinator for the Colombian Campaign Against Landmines, says the agreement in Havana carries hidden benefits, in addition to making the countryside safer for people like Gomez.

"It breaks a historical cycle of hate, because this is the first time that the army and the FARC will work together," he says. "It's a small step ... but it could have big implications."

The deal is no magic bullet. The FARC have said they will keep using landmines to defend their positions in the jungle. And other organizations, like the National Liberation Army and some criminal gangs, are actively using landmines.

Even so, Jairo says he's optimistic that the talks in Havana will eventually make Colombia a safer place. In the meantime, he says the painstaking work of carefully digging up landmines has given him a sense of purpose.

"I'm very happy to have this kind of job," he says. "I'm happy to have the chance to pull up landmines that have caused so much damage to people."

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