In Colombia, women were directly impacted by the more than half a century-long bloody war between the military and the guerrilla rebel group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC). Their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were killed. They were often subject to sexual violence, including rape and forced abortions. Today, three years after a peace pact was made between both armies, the women are now cleaning up the conflict’s deadly remnants.
In war zones throughout the South American country there are leftover explosives. Guerrillas planted landmines in towns, by schools and homes, as well as fincas years ago, prepared to ambush their enemies when they needed to. While the land is no longer occupied, many still fear walking through affected areas, knowing the risk they take stepping on a mine and detonating a bomb that could take off their leg.
Humanity & Inclusion (HI), an internationally funded humanitarian aid organization, is working to remove these mines — and it’s largely powered by women. In fact, 40 percent of the group is women and some, like Erika Romero, also lead teams.
“In the armed conflict, the mines were the most effective mechanism to do damage. Mines don’t discriminate,” Romero, HI’s base manager in Caquetá, told Teen Vogue. “Mines aren’t going to just target people in the military. The mines are going to take down civilians, the most vulnerable population. They’ve taken down children, animals, mothers, farmers.”
From 1990 to 2017, more than 11,000 people were killed or injured by mines and explosive, like grenades, mortars or bombs, that remained after the war.
This makes the women’s work essential. Before they started, 31 of 32 of Colombia’s departments were sullied with mines. That’s down by three. It might not seem like a lot, but the work is dangerous, making it meticulous and time-consuming.
Still, it’s labor that excites Marifer Culman Ortiz. The 19-year-old wakes up each morning, puts on her shatter-proof mask and anti-explosive gear, and begins her day in the minefield, moving away scrubs in the jungle and hovering her metal detector over the ground until she hears a long beep.
“It’s a very beautiful kind of work,” Culman Ortiz told the magazine. “That is, you have to go out to these areas and free them from many dangers like mines. Then people can pass through these pathways without fear that they’re going to step on the ground and lose their leg.”
Without women, this crucial work couldn’t get done. In the rural communities largely impacted by the war, there’s still a distrust of outsiders. This complicates the work of deminers, who often count on locals to identify areas where mines might have been planted. Those from the area are more comfortable speaking with familiar faces, who tend to be young women eager to rebuild their communities.
“Families are not going to trust people they practically don’t know and give this information because they could say ‘No, it could put my family at risk,’” Andrea Trujillo Ramirez, one of the women who works with the organization in the community she grew up in, said. “When we [women] go there, they almost always give us the information because they aren’t scared of us.”
Trujillo Ramirez was raised in a farmhouse near an encampment-turned-demining locale. Her childhood was plagued by war. She remembers hiding in bathrooms and under beds to protect herself from bullets as well as her mother pulling her out of school so she wouldn’t be hit during an unexpected, but common, shoot-out. She knows the pain of losing an uncle to a land mine and a brother, a member of FARC, to a clash with the military.
“The importance of this work is that I don’t want my family to have this experience of pain that I have had to live,” Trujillo Ramirez, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said.
While the Colombian government and the rebel group signed a peace pact in 2016, many fear that new conflict may soon arise. The government, which promised reparations for victims, reintegration of former combatants into society and developing the country’s destitute and rural areas, haven’t carried their vows through. Most recently, Colombian President Ivan Duque, who was elected last year, has questioned the accords altogether.
Former FARC rebels, upset by the unfulfilled pledges, have returned to war zone areas, carrying guns and sparking fear into many community members who are familiar with what a war-torn Colombia looks like.
This puts the women’s work at risk. They now face being at the center of violence themselves for attempting to detonate the remnants of yesterday’s brutality — a danger that could potentially put an end to their demining efforts.
“There would not be guarantees that we wouldn’t be forced out,” Romero said. “We could be at risk for the work we do with the communities so we would have to stop.”
For now, the women continue cleaning and hoping for a safer time ahead.
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