Life after Injury from Landmines—in Colombia
Inequality as the Root of Violence
In the beautiful equatorial nation of Colombia, armed violence has increasingly become a way of life—and for many, a way to death or disability. Different factions, vying for money, power, drug trade, or redistribution of land and governance, have been at each other’s throats for decades. As a result, countless innocent persons, many of them women and children, have had their bodies, lives and dreams torn to shreds.
Violence in Colombia has been exacerbated by what is called “development aid” from the US government, much of it in the form of weapons and instruments of war. Officially this weaponry has been given to Colombia’s armed forces to fight the “War on Drugs.” The fact that Colombia’s military has a long track record of brutal human rights abuses and of alliances with the drug cartels has little relevance in this pervasive mission.
It is common knowledge that the underlying reason for the multibillion dollar flood of US weapons to Colombian military—and para-military—forces is to maintain the economic and political stability of Colombia’s pro-US oligarchy, i.e. to protect the properties and interests of wealthy landlords and transnational corporations. In practice, this translates into fighting the guerilla movements as well as crushing popular uprisings that demand agrarian reform and a more accountable, socially progressive government.
Similar to so many other countries that have a huge foreign debt, Colombia has been obliged to adopt “structural adjustment” policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF. These policies—including privatization of public services, cutbacks in welfare, and freezing of wages while freeing of prices have caused a deepening of poverty for millions of people, and have exacerbated migration of the landless to urban slums, with high rates of unemployment and homelessness. The desperation and hopelessness of young people has driven many to join the warring factions or turn to drugs and crime. All this has accelerated the vicious cycle of physical and structural violence. Nevertheless, many groups and communities are doing their best to cope with the difficulties and impove their situation.
Visit to Bogota on Invitation from CIREC and ICES
In May 2003, I (David Werner) was invited to Colombia by two local non-government groups with overlapping concerns. Both groups work to encourage the inclusion and increase the opportunities of marginalized persons and communities, through their active involvement with Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR).
The first group is CIREC—Centro Integral de Rehabilitación en Colombia. Based in Bogota, the program is now introducing Community Based Rehabilitation activities in rural areas. CIREC is exploring ways to include persons disabled by landmines in this enabling process.
The second group is ICES—Instituto Cerros del Sur—a community-run development, health, and rehabilitation program that aims to train disabled persons and street youth to become neighborhood health workers.
Training Landmine Amputees as Community Rehab Workers
Most of us don’t think of Colombia as a country ravaged by landmines. But it is. Landmines in recent years have caused loss of limbs in over 1,300 people in Colombia. Some were involved in the fighting: i.e. soldiers, paramilitaries, guerillas, and drug dealers. But a substantial number are innocent victims of “periferal damage”: women, children, and farmers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Reportedly, nearly all the landmines deployed in Colombia are small handmade, hair-triggered devices produced by the guerillas. But who knows? Landmines remain a profitable item in international trade, with US corporations as the world’s biggest supplier. The US government still refuses to sign the international treaty banning landmines.
As the primary supplier of artificial limbs in Colombia, CIREC is painfully aware of the damage caused by landmines. Most of the persons disabled by mines are unemployed, often abandoned, and destitute.
CIREC is always looking for ways to make its services more accessible to the poorest people. It has developed many innovations in “assistive technology,” including low-cost shop-made knee-joints, that function remarkably well. CIREC realizes that an artificial limb is just the first part of rehabilitation for persons traumatized by landmines.
A number of the staff and technicians of CIREC are disabled themselves, some of them from landmines. The program is always looking for ways to gain fuller inclusion and more opportunities for disabled persons, in schooling, work, and community involvement.
A National Symposium on CBR Involving Victims of Landmines
In May, 2003 CIREC organized a national “Symposium for Survivors of Landmines” to help them explore a new start on life.
Of the 200 participants present at the Symposium in Bogota, 70 were amputee victims of landmines. They ranged from 12 to 70 years old. Some were ex-soldiers, some paramilitaries, some drug growers or dealers, some guerillas, and still others were combinations of the above. Many had been on opposing sides of the violent confrontations.
Whatever faction the mine-injured persons came from, their disability was in some ways “the great equalizer.” At the CIREC Symposium they were all drawn together by what they now had in common: the loss of limb and livelihood. Rather than feeling the tension of opposing sides, the gathering seemed like a big family reunion.
One of the goals of the CIREC Forum was unique, and this was the reason why I had been invited. The managers and staff of CIREC (some disabled themselves or parents of disabled children) are interested in training landmine survivors as workers, technicians, and leaders in the budding Community Based Rehabilitation movement in rural areas. CIREC is helping to get CBR programs started in rural areas, and believes disabled persons should play a key role. A central purpose of the Symposium was to expose the 70 landmine-injured participants to their potential role as CBR workers, and excite them about the possibilities.
Whatever warring factions the landmine survivors came from, their disability was in some ways ‘the great equalizer’
That was my primary assignment. PROJIMO in Mexico has become renowned as a CBR program run and staffed by disabled villagers themselves. My role at the Symposium, therefore, was to communicate both to the rehab professionals and landmine injured participants the enormous potential of disabled persons as leaders and service providers in the CBR process.
I did my best. With the help of a Power point projector donated by Stichting Liliane Fonds in Holland, during the 3 day Forum I presented a potpourri of “slide shows” on many aspects of PROJIMO. I also described other community based programs in which disabled persons take the lead. I provided a range of stories and examples in which disabled rehab workers with limited formal education, by working in partnership with their clients, have achieved better, cheaper, more functional solutions than have highly trained, non-disabled experts.
The response was enthusiastic. Several of the landmine victims are eager to become community-based rehabilitation workers. Many professionals who attended the Forum said they now have much more interest in providing training, back-up and support to disabled community rehab workers.
Arrangements are presently being made for a few of the mine-injured trainees to apprentice in the prosthetic and brace-making shops at CIREC. Others will enter CBR training courses in their provinces. These disabled apprentices plan to return to their community as “multipliers,” teaching others what they have learned.
This venture, if successful, will provide an important breakthrough in terms of disabled persons taking a leading role in Community Based Rehabilitation initiatives.