Farmers affected by weapon contamination in Caquetá set to start a new life

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In 2012, the ICRC assisted over 200 victims of weapon contamination in Colombia. Many of these people have had to leave their homes, have lost their livelihoods or the physical ability to perform a job and are struggling to cope with serious physical and psychological consequences. Three people who received support from the ICRC in Florencia, in south-eastern Colombia, tell how they are trying to overcome this unexpected predicament.

It is 1:40 p.m. and Alberto Montenegro is getting ready to go to a physiotherapy session at the hospital in Florencia (Caquetá), in south-eastern Colombia. He attends to last-minute details with great care. He knows that the success of his rehabilitation and adaptation to wearing a prosthesis depend on his determination. Meanwhile, his friends, Héctor and Aldemar, wait patiently in the doorway of the shelter to accompany him.

Alberto, Héctor and Aldemar are farmers and have lived almost all their lives in rural areas in Caquetá. The friendship that unites them now developed after they suffered an accident and became victims of weapon contamination, an after-effect of the armed conflict.

As Rodrigo Marles, an ICRC worker in Florencia, explains "weapon contamination is the presence of anti-personnel landmines, explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices left behind after an armed conflict". Victim figures, although not widely reported, are nonetheless alarming. In 2012, the ICRC recorded 63 civilian victims in the area covered by the Florencia sub-delegation (Huila, Caquetá and Putumayo).

23 December 2009: death, displacement and uncertainty

Héctor Marín Perdomo had been living on his farm for 23 years. "One day, I went out with my son to move cattle from one field to another and the boy found a device. When he touched it, it exploded and killed him outright. I was about twenty metres away when it happened, and was shattered by the blast. I was in hospital for 29 days and still have to have another operation".

Héctor and his family moved to Florencia, where they lived for 18 months until they had to go to run a farm in another region. "It was very hard for us, because we are not used to living in a village or a city".

Rodrigo Marles observes that anti-personnel landmines, explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices also have other humanitarian consequences. "Communities are forced to move or are hemmed in; people are afraid, children drop out of school and access to health services is difficult. Farmers have difficulties getting to their crops, and their income falls".

23 March 2008: a never-ending fight

The day before his accident, José Aldemar Vásquez had heard fighting in the area. What he did not realize was that this meant that it would be dangerous to walk around that area afterwards. Although almost five years have passed since the accident, he is still suffering the consequences. "This foot has been giving me hell for four years now", he complains, moving this way and that. "That's how I have spent my life: fighting".

In spite of all this, Aldemar can consider himself lucky not to have lost a limb, which is the plight of most weapon contamination victims.

27 February 2011: a new life ahead

Alberto still remembers the hard time he had after the accident. He had no confidence in himself. He thought he was going to die and did not know anyone in Florencia. Time helped to heal his wounds. "Little by little, I got better. I was at the Colombian Red Cross Society's Henry Dunant Shelter. There I received support from various institutions. I am having physiotherapy and can walk much better now: I have a new life ahead of me".

The ICRC's work in the area of weapon contamination includes providing assistance and carrying out prevention activities. It advises victims about how to obtain care and about their rights and gives them financial support for accommodation, food and transport in the emergency and recovery stages of care. Prevention activities include workshops to teach communities how to stay safe.

The ICRC engages in confidential dialogue with armed actors to remind them of their duty to protect and respect the civilian population and limit means and methods of warfare. They also discuss the humanitarian consequences and effects of using and leaving behind weapons and devices.

Alberto, Héctor and Aldemar know that their accidents have changed their lives forever. They welcome the promise of help from the authorities, which they hope will enable them to begin a new life. They want to start this new life in the country because, as Héctor observes, "we know that our place is in the country, it is where we belong; we know how to look after ourselves in the country and I'm sure that we will be able to cope better there with what happened to us".