Global: A second life for landmine victims

News and Press Release
Originally published
CARTAGENA, 16 December 2009 (IRIN) - At first glance they appear as they are, a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings giggling and laughing, at ease with themselves and their friends.

But the thin outline of a knee brace beneath a girl's tight jeans is discernible, and a boy's arm casually looped around a friend reveals half a limb. Their bodies have been mangled and shredded by landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), but it has failed to mask their joy.

Their presence, with a host of other survivors, at the recent second five-year review conference of the Mine Ban Treaty in the Colombian port city of Cartagena is testimony to the success of rehabilitation techniques.

Ten years ago the cousin of Jonathan Munoz, 20, and Monica, 19, a brother and sister, came into their home in rural Colombia carrying something he had found in the neighbourhood after days of intense fighting between government and rebel forces. It was a grenade. As he lifted it, it fell to the floor. The resulting explosion killed their cousin instantly, and the siblings lost a leg each.

Deison Cantillo, 21, lost an arm and a leg to a landmine; Jolir Parra, 23, lost a leg to a home-made explosive device, found in nearby fields by a young relative and hidden in his garden for safe-keeping before it was triggered, changing his life.

All four have undergone rehabilitation with Integral Rehabilitation de Colombia Centro (CIREC), an NGO that uses adventure sports like abseiling, rock climbing, kayaking and scuba-diving as part of a programme designed to generate hope and self-esteem, and bring families back together after the trauma.

Jorge Quesada, of CIREC, told IRIN the programme was not just for landmine and ERW survivors, but for all people with disabilities. "Disability is harder for the head than for the physical, so we must change the mind."

Cantillo told IRIN that after his accident 11 years ago "I thought my road was finished; I thought it was impossible to be part of society again ... I was lost and not part of this world ... It took me a long time to believe again."

No limits

He said abseiling and scuba-diving had taught him that "to be disabled is not necessarily a limitation ... if you don't succeed in something, you can just try it again."

The most gratifying effect of his rehabilitation was the change in his relationship with his mother after the accident. "She did not let me go anywhere because I was vulnerable. It's incredible to see my mother as a new person, as she started believing in me again. She can rely on me, trust me and let me go," Cantillo said.

Andres Obregon, a diving instructor with CIREC, told IRIN that the two-day diving course - a one-day pool training session followed by a sea dive - involved the families as part of the rehabilitation process.

The underwater environment was unlike the reality of being on land, where they were often "frustrated" by infrastructure not designed for the disabled, like buses and pavements.

"We go out in two boats, with the children in one and the parents in other, and then they drop into the water and the parents just see their children flying towards them - it's amazing," he said.

Jonathan Munoz said the dive had helped him "rediscover my father ... I don't understand what it is that changed, but something changed." His sister, Monica, surmised it had spilled over from the family "rediscovering the sea" - an experience that drew the family together again.

The review conference committed itself to renewed vigour in assisting landmine and ERW survivors, not at the expense of other disabled people, but rather as a fusion of assisting all those with a disability, regardless of how it occurred. Most of the world's most heavily mined countries are also some of the poorest, which often makes assistance to the disabled a low priority.

Ready to rumble

Brian Sheridan, 34, a paraplegic and player for the United States wheelchair rugby team, made no distinction about how disabilities occurred. "The difference between me and a landmine victim is they stepped on something that blew up, and I did a back-flip and landed on my head."

He was an aspiring 18-year-old gymnast when he broke his neck. The first few years after the accident were "dark", but wheelchair rugby was "a paradigm shift". When he is not hurtling around in a chair with special steel wheels, he has his own consultancy in specialized equipment for the disabled.

Wheelchair Rugby had its origins in Winnipeg, Canada, when in 1977 a group of quadriplegic athletes invented a game allowing players with reduced arm and hand function to participate equally, as an alternative to wheelchair basketball.

The full-contact sport was first called "Murderball", before adopting its more gentrified name. The object of the game is to carry the ball across the opposing team's goal line, and it is not for the faint-hearted.

The International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) has 24 member countries, with a further eight countries developing the sport, including Colombia. John Bishop, IWRF Vice President of Communications, told IRIN the sport was growing throughout the world and US servicemen disabled in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being recruited as part of their rehabilitation process.

At an event during the conference, billed as the "Rumble in Cartagena" - evoking the famous boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, capital of then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo in 1974 - the US played a "friendly" game of wheelchair rugby against Colombia.

The US won the game. Afterwards Sheridan commented: "The power it [wheelchair rugby] has to transfer a person's spirit, to re-energise ... Everyone is looking for a cure [to disability], and this is one of the cures."