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Colombia: Eight hours and forty-minutes waiting for treatment

31-08-2004 Feature by Carlos Rios

I was happy living in my house in the countryside. I just wanted to go on growing bananas and maize and ferrying people and goods up and down the river in my boat. But that’s all in the past. I live a different life now.

These are the words of a young man from the Colombian countryside whose plans and dreams were shattered by an anti-personnel mine two years ago. In 2002,at the age of 24, Juan left his home in Norte de Santander (near the Venezuelan border) for the capital, Bogotá, to start the process of physical and psychological rehabilitation. His new life is full of challenges and hardships. But he has also had some triumphs as he learns to rebuild his life as a mine survivor. Juan lived with his Aunt Edilia who had looked after him since he was a child. Together, they grew maize and bananas on their farm in the rural district of Angalia. With the money they earned from farming and from taxiing people in their boat, they were able to make a living.
But on 7 March 2002,everything changed. Juan had been visiting relatives in a nearby town, when he decided to return home. After taking a bus part of the way, he planned on walking the remaining distance. He stopped for a small snack along the side of the road before he set of f on foot. It was a journey that he would never complete.

Juan is trying to rebuild his life after he lost his   left leg to an anti-personnel mine.©ICRC/C. Rios 

Suddenly, a great explosion sent tremors along the path. Juan was thrust back by the force of the blast and landed several metres from where he had been walking.
“The pain was incredible, but I didn’t lose consciousness. I knew I ’d stepped on a mine. I immediately thought of the piles of dry leaves I ’d seen on the path, which must have been camouflaging the mines.
“I started yelling, hoping that someone from one of the armed groups in the area would hear me and perhaps help me, seeing as I was a civilian. Finally, four locals appeared and put me on a boat. I was bleeding heavily, and the pain was unbearable.
“The boat took me to Puerto Catatumbo,. fifteen minutes away along the river. From there, they took me by cart to Filo Gringo, half an hour away, where I received first aid. I was still conscious, but I felt like I was going to die.
“A two-hour journey by pickup truck brought me to El Tarra, and from there an ambulance took me to Ocaña, another six hours away.”
Juan recalls that they had to stop several times between El Tarra and Ocaña at checkpoints set up by armed groups.“Even though I was badly injured, we had to explain the whole story all over again each time we stopped. The thing we really had to emphasize was that I was a civilian and not part of an armed force. ”The doctors in Ocaña did their best, but .finally they had to amputate Juan ’s left leg.In total,he had waited eight hours and forty-.five minutes before he received treatment.
Six days later, Juan was discharged from Ocaña hospital and went to Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander.He stayed with some cousins until his aunt came to see him. She seemed worried, and explained to him that she did not think that they could go back to their home. She would rather stay in Cúcuta, even though it meant losing ev erything. She told Juan that people were looking for him because they thought he had “reported them to the authorities ”.If he did not withdraw his accusations, his family would be in danger. “What makes this situation so horrible,” said Juan,“ is that I didn’t report the incident to anyone. What good would it have done?”
Once he had survived the critical post-accident phase, Juan began the hardest part of his recovery process –rehabilitation. On the recommendation of the doctors who had been treating him for several months at Cúcuta hospital, he went to the local ICRC office, where they offered him the possibility of taking part in an ICRC-funded rehabilitation programme in Bogotá at the Instituto San Felipe Neri. Juan accepted their offer immediately.
On arrival at the Instituto San Felipe Neri, Juan was able not just to start the process of physical and psychological rehabilitation, but also to begin vocational training that would help him to support himself despite his disability. Juan is learning how to be a baker and he intends to stay in Bogotá.“ It ’s an easier place to live if you ’re disabled. What would I do in the countryside?”
Sixteen months have passed since Juan arrived in Bogotá. His life has completely changed, and so have his dreams. The psychological effect of the mine has been considerable. For months he had trouble sleeping. He was tired and suffered from anxiety on account of his uncertain future.His aunt is still trying to survive in Cúcuta and has not returned home to their farm and ferry business. She has not been able to visit her nephew.
Hundreds of Colombians like Juan have had to change their dreams and their goals because of anti-personnel mines.
“This war is absurd,” said Juan. “We are all brothers, but we are killing each other. I keep asking myself why all this is happening.”
Despite the on-going internal armed conflict, Colombia joi ned the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines in 1999. Sadly,however,due to the intensification of the conflict since 2002,the anti-personnel mine problem is getting worse and the number of both civilian and military victims is increasing. Mine action activities are also hindered by the armed conflict. Measures to reduce the threat posed to civilians include mine risk education and assistance to victims such as Juan. These activities are essential to reducing the suffering caused by anti-personnel mines in Colombia.
Since his accident, Juan has learned to be optimistic. He is starting to think about how to raise the necessary capital to start his own business. And he is sure that, with time, he will succeed.