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Colombia: indigenous people at risk from explosive devices

12-10-2011 Feature

Colombia continues to have one of the highest rates of victims of weapon contamination anywhere in the world. This scourge leaves deep physical and psychological scars on a population living amidst armed conflict.

A few months ago the Nasa indigenous people, who live on a reservation in the Cauca department, had a terrible fright. Almost like a divine warning, a bolt of lightning struck the summit of a mountain believed to be holy by the local inhabitants and set off two explosive devices whose presence had previously been unsuspected. Since then, pupils at the local school have not been allowed to venture onto this or any of the other surrounding hills, a precaution taken by teachers to protect the children.

A history marked by warfare

It was 25 years ago that this community first suffered the effects of armed conflict. According to the inhabitants, the worst incident occurred 10 years ago when an armed group made a violent incursion into the area. The residents, who still break down in tears when talking about it, recount how the armed men committed indescribable acts against some indigenous people in front of the terrified community. The incursion only lasted two days, but it was enough to leave a scar on the memory and lives of the locals.

After this armed raid the community rallied round and took steps to safeguard its members' lives and dignity. For several years teachers have been running programmes to promote peaceful coexistence, community cohesion and participation, and conflict resolution. The programmes take the form of art and dance courses and workshops on domestic violence, community service, food security, safe travel and indigenous cultural values. In addition, indigenous leaders have been calling on armed groups to respect the rules of war and leave civilians out of the conflict.

After the explosion on the mountain summit, fear has returned. Although no-one living in the area has fallen victim to an explosive device so far, the community has taken various preventive measures. There is a 6 p.m. curfew for children living in the town centre, and those living in rural areas must go home straight after school. If a child fails to arrive as expected, the community launches a search.

For its part, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has run basic information sessions on how to stay safe for 235 schoolchildren, 60 parents and 24 teachers from the reservation. Many of them now know the rules by heart: don't pick up unusual objects from paths or enter abandoned buildings; travel by well-used routes; and avoid occupied or abandoned encampments. The aim of these workshops is to back up the communities' own self-protection mechanisms.

"In Colombia, weapon contamination takes many different forms," explains Adrián Estrada of the ICRC in Cali. "Someone walking through the fields or the forest may stumble across explosive remnants of war left over from a battle, abandoned munitions or explosives, or improvised explosive devices. It is vital that the local people know how to avoid accidents and what to do in an emergency."

With sessions for younger participants involving playing games and drawing pictures, and workshops run for the older ones, every year the ICRC in Colombia educates more than 11,000 people living in high-risk areas. This work, which is also carried out by the Colombian Red Cross, is aimed at reducing the number of accidents to civilians resulting from the presence of explosive remnants of war in the rural areas where they live. The ICRC also explains to communities, local authorities and health services how to provide care for victims of violence (including victims of weapon contamination) and the rights such victims enjoy.


Photos

Schoolchildren in a town in Cauca department take part in the ICRC workshop on how to keep safe. 

Colombia. Schoolchildren in a town in Cauca department take part in the ICRC workshop on how to keep safe.
© ICRC / E. Tovar

The aim of the workshop is to prevent accidents caused by weapon contamination. 

The aim of the workshop is to prevent accidents caused by weapon contamination.
© ICRC / E. Tovar

By playing games and drawing pictures, the youngest pupils learn about safe behaviour in areas affected by weapon contamination. 

By playing games and drawing pictures, the youngest pupils learn about safe behaviour in areas affected by weapon contamination.
© ICRC / E. Tovar

A boy draws pictures showing how to avoid accidents caused by explosive devices. 

A boy draws pictures showing how to avoid accidents caused by explosive devices.
© ICRC / E. Tovar