Nicole Karsin / SF Chronicle Foreign Service – 2005-04-23 09:30:54
MICOAHUMADO, Colombia (April 21, 2005) — Fourteen years ago, Alirio Vargas stepped on a land mine near his village, losing an eye and part of his left leg. Now he is pressuring the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, to remove all unexploded ordnance laid by the rebels in recent years.
“As campesinos, we are obliged to speak to the fighters and defend our rights,” said the 55-year-old farmer.
While the government of President Alvaro Uribe has failed to bring the Cuban-inspired rebel group referred to as the ELN and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Army of Colombia (FARC), back to the peace table, peasant communities here and elsewhere have decided to negotiate with the rebels on their own.
In an unprecedented gesture in December, the ELN pledged to remove land mines on roads near five northern towns. In February, the rebels ended their first mine-sweeping effort by clearing at least 71 explosives from the roads surrounding this village of 7,500 inhabitants in the San Lucas mountain range.
In the past seven years, four Micoahumado villagers have been killed and seven wounded from land mines, according to the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, an organization affiliated with the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.
An estimated 130,000 land mines are buried throughout Colombia as a result of the 41-year-old civil war that has pitted leftist guerrillas against government troops and right-wing paramilitary gangs.
In Antioquia state, about 15 communities, which have negotiated with the rebels in years past over various issues, are talking with the ELN over mine removal.
The Ottawa Convention
The government says it stopped planting mines several years ago, but it estimates that insurgents continue to bury more than 20,000 such weapons annually. In 2000, Colombia ratified the Ottawa Convention, which calls for banning and destroying all mines by 2009.
In the past four years, casualties from land mines have escalated sharply, making Colombia No. 4 in the world for mine victims, behind Afghanistan, Chechnya and Cambodia.
Between 2001 and Feb. 1 this year, 527 people were killed and 1,876 injured from land mines, according to the Colombian Campaign Against Mines. The military accounts for about 63 percent of the victims.
Carlos Ivan Lopera of the National Network Against War and For Peace, a nongovernmental organization, says the eradication of explosives from Micoahumado marks the first time the ELN has made land mines and international verification of their removal a public issue.
Rebel, Civilian Contacts ‘Prohibited’
The Uribe administration, however, frowns on such initiatives. Negotiations between civilians and rebels are prohibited, said Vice President Francisco Santos. He says dialogue between guerrillas and government officials would “yield more concrete results.”
Yet peasants in Micoahumado say the opportunity to resume a normal life by hammering out agreements with the rebels is its own measure of success.
For the first time in 2 1/2 years, Micoahumado children can play soccer on a field behind the elementary school that had been heavily mined. Farmers now tend to their fields without fear.
“We repeatedly told the guerrillas that the indiscriminate planting of mines in our territory would only affect the civilian population, and the guerrillas began to understand this,” said a 36-year-old father of five who asked not to be named.
With a red and black bandanna covering his face, ELN’s “Commander Pablo” said his troops removed the mines “as a goodwill gesture to show our desire to help end Colombia’s conflict.”
Otty Patino, a political analyst in Bogota, says the mine removal is part of ELN’s push for peace talks with the government that began in June. “The ELN is trying to gain political recognition through … this public act of demining,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore calls by Micoahumado residents to send an international team to verify the ELN demining effort. Even though the United Nations has offered its expertise, government officials say the area is still too dangerous.
“Armed combat continues in the zone, and the government’s peace commissioner needs the ELN to commit to peace on a national level, not just in one zone,” said Luz Piedad Herrera, director of the government’s demining program.
Alvaro Jimenez, the coordinator of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, warns Micoahumado residents not to use the road until it is deemed to be safe by international experts.
He also criticized the Uribe administration. “This step could be the beginning of a significant process, but it’s being impeded by the government’s lack of participation,” Jimenez said.
And despite government disapproval, Micoahumado residents say they will continue to negotiate with the ELN and any other armed groups over issues that affect their lives.
“We had to talk sincerely to the ELN so others won’t suffer as I did,” said Vargas, the land mine victim.
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