Helping Colombia's landmine survivors regain their dignity

Colombia, September 9, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Diana Roa Castro is a longtime advocate for the rights of landmine survivors in Colombia. She leads our project that treats the wide range of needs of survivors, from medical care to physical rehabilitation to employment. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Wedged in a middle seat on a packed Avianca airliner, high over the Colombian Andes, I received a world-class education in treating landmine survivors.

It was my good fortune that one of the people I was squeezed between (the other being a sugar cane farmer from Pasto) was Diana Roa Castro, who directs the Mercy Corps Colombia Land Mine Vctims Project. Colombia has more land mine survivors than any other country in the world, and Diana is one of the world's leading experts on designing programs to help them recover and reintegrate with society.

My Mercy Corps colleagues and I were flying from Bogota to Pasto, in the Colombian province of Nariño. There we would visit several programs dealing with that region's huge number of internally displaced persons, refugees from the world's longest-lasting war. We were a touch apprehensive -- not only was it a turbulent flight, but the previous evening a gunbattle occurred between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels on one of the roads we would be taking.

We never made it to Pasto. Lightning, high winds, and poor visibility diverted our flight to Cali, then back to Bogota. As we roiled toward Cali, Diana explained how Mercy Corps is pioneering new approaches to dealing with the survivors of these random, often devastating explosions.

"Before, people would be treated for their horrible injuries, and then largely forgotten," She says. "Now, we treat them in a comprehensive manner."

The centerpiece of this treatment is a new sustainable rehabilitation center in Pasto. Thanks in large part to Mercy Corps funding, the rehab center features state-of-the-art facilities and cutting-edge equipment for diagnosing and treating victims.

"Landmine explosions affect the whole person," says Diana. "We evaluate everything, from the top of their head to the tip of their toes."

Beyond the obvious and immediate trauma of shattered bones and shredded flesh are less obvious concerns — hearing loss, microfractures, vision problems, social isolation, job loss. Everything is addressed.

"We try to give them back their dignity," she says.

Diana speaks of Yesid Arguello, a 22 year-old man from Caqueta who lost a leg and 50% of his hearing in a landmine explosion. In addition to treating his injuries and training him for a new career, this Mercy Corps program helped him learn how to read and write.

"The first letter he ever wrote in his life, he wrote to Mercy Corps," says Diana. "He said 'thank you, Mercy Corps. Thank you for my life.'"

"We told Yesid, as we tell them all, you're not the remains of what you were. You are the beginning of what you can be."

The next day the weather cleared, and we finally made it to Pasto.