WorldIn the jungle of damn mines

In the jungle of damn mines

In place of the legs, there was a huge nothingness. The people of the village saw that obvious absence, that gap, in the man dressed as a combatant who was being lowered from the hill by two companions. Armed and uniformed men were walking through the jungle when one of them stepped on a mine and jumped through the air. They cursed the villagers for not warning that the surroundings were mined and forced them to transport the wounded to the Atrato River. A few days later, the guerrillas of the opposing group appeared there to reprimand them for having helped the mutilated combatant: “You happen to be paras?”. The question with the reference to the paramilitaries concealed a death threat. The villagers packed up their things, put the pigs and chickens on the rafts and fled the village, which became a ghost place overnight. Recalling this episode, the equivalent for their small community of the Nazi invasion of Poland, they reach a conclusion:

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“We are bastards.

In 2016, Colombia signed a peace agreement that demobilized thousands of FARC fighters, the most powerful guerrillas in Latin America at that time. However, conflict between armed groups continues in isolated parts of the country where the presence of the state is minimal. In this place, on the border between the regions of Antioquia and Chocó, the harmonica self-defense, a criminal faction, and the ELN guerrillas fight for every inch of jungle. Territorial domination means controlling coca plantations, extortion and drug trafficking corridors. Since funding armies is not cheap, the shock is brutal.

Speedboat follows the river towards Murindó. | In video, victims of the conflict talk about their situation.Video: Gladys Serrano (Photo: Camilo Rozo)

The confrontation between the two groups left the roads full of mines, which last year caused the death of 10 indigenous people, people who had nothing to do with the conflict, were just passing by. They also reached an indeterminate number of combatants, like the boy who lost his legs when he accidentally triggered one, who may have died. Or maybe not. The villagers transported the young man to a secret place, where he got lost among the tropical foliage.

This trip to these more remote communities that were isolated by mines and crossfire begins in the town of Apartadó, in Urabá. The mechanical systems that transport bunches of bananas cross the fields like iron scars. As the truck accumulates kilometers, the presence of the administrative state is diluted and the three initials of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC, begin to appear everywhere. A toll booth appears in the middle of a path of rocks and dirt. A boy in a cap who charges a dollar and a half (almost eight reais) to raise the barrier issues a receipt if visitors want to prove the expense.

The sun and humidity do not let up. For decades this place was under the influence of the FARC, in continuous war with the paramilitaries and the Colombian army. Here some of their fiercest battles were fought and civilian killings took place. Back then, war was a way of life, not an exception. Abandoned and half-destroyed villages pass at full speed through the car window, invaded by vegetation and some birds of ill omen. Its inhabitants left, never to return. The demobilization of the FARC left a power vacuum that was filled by another active guerrilla group, the ELN, which gained exclusive access to businesses such as illegal mining and logging. The self-defense groups, made up of former paramilitaries dedicated to drug trafficking, entered the scene to dispute territory and, little by little, managed to dislodge the guerrillas. The guerrillas sow the places they leave behind with explosives.

The road flows into a river of cloudy water. The place is called Riosucio (“dirty river”). The population, mostly Afro-Colombians, lives in wooden houses built by the river. From here, the journey continues by speedboat. The letters AGC reappear written on facades, roofs and trees in the middle of nowhere. After four hours upriver, Murindó appears, who celebrates his patron on these days. To the beat of catchy music, misses dance on the stern of steamships crossing the village. From dry land, the villagers applaud them. In the middle of the crowd, it’s not hard to make out boys with blank eyes, caps and a bandola across their chests. Everyone knows who they are.

Members of the indigenous guard point to the exact location where the Army in a controlled manner detonated an explosive left over from combat between armed groups.
Members of the indigenous guard point to the exact location where the Army in a controlled manner detonated an explosive left over from combat between armed groups. Camilo Rozo

There, a sergeant from the Colombian Army — dark, muscular, haircut in a brush — goes out to meet the travelers:

“I need to know where they’re going. We want to know if they arrive in one piece.

Five hours later by boat, the river narrows and it is necessary to cross some mangroves. Darkness surges through the jungle inside, as if someone has turned off the light. Two young men pass aboard a boat full of coca leaves. From the trees come the whistles of invisible people, indistinguishable behind the vegetation. At the top of a hill appears Isla, a village of Embera Indians.

Its 357 inhabitants live confined. They cannot leave the limits of their territory. They wash clothes and dishes in a part of the river close to their homes, fish for sardines a little further on. Going further would be exposing yourself to flying through the air. The small crops that they have inland, in a higher part of the mountain, were abandoned. The animals they could hunt in this imaginary perimeter are scarce. Your own physical activity has been affected. Those who are not used to walking through these places can complete 15 kilometers in one day. They, men and women, 50. Inactivity makes them anxious. The horrors they witnessed hammer their brains.

No one forgets what happened to Plinio Dogari, a 13-year-old boy. He was strong, able to carry heavy bags and withstand long walks. Plinio was debuting his adult facet. In a solemn ceremony, he received the vest and baton that accredited him as another member of the indigenous guard, a kind of local police. His adventure was short-lived. On February 28, he was crossing overland with tall vegetation when he stepped on a mine. Instantly lost his right leg. The village mobilized to take him to a hospital, hours away. Plinio is currently recovering in Apartadó, a larger town where the hospital is nearby. The stump, at knee level, has not yet completely healed, so it is not possible to place a prosthesis. He started walking to school on crutches. “I wanted to be a football player,” he says, pointing to where his foot should be.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the number of victims of explosive devices in Colombia since the beginning of this year has reached 263. Of that total, 59% are civilians. Seventeen died after the explosion. The others will have physical and psychological consequences for the rest of their lives. Bárbara Strasser, an ICRC delegate, from Austria, dialogues as a neutral entity with armed groups to try to avoid casualties among the civilian population.

Indigenous children play soccer in the Turriquitadó Llano community, which houses other indigenous people displaced by the violence.
Indigenous children play soccer in the Turriquitadó Llano community, which houses other indigenous people displaced by the violence. Camilo Rozo

Civilians are often caught in the crossfire. “We are threatened”, laments Ubellina, the community’s cook, fisherman and shaman. “We always live isolated, but now more, much more”, adds Ubadel, the doctor. One morning, when the roosters began to crow, the sound of heavy weaponry startled them. The AGC, called the “gulf clan” by the government, and the guerrillas fought a three-hour battle, from six to nine, on a hill beside the village. The governor, the title the mayor has here, took care of the 357 residents taking shelter on a hillside. On another occasion, a small contingent of paramilitaries spent the night at the school. In the morning, he was awakened by the army with a ration of lead. The exchange of fire lasted for hours. The military killed one of the AGC chiefs. His corpse was transported on a stretcher across the main square of Isla. No one has forgotten her petrified face, her open eyes. A helicopter waiting on the football field took the body through the air like a trophy. The roof of the school was pockmarked and has not been repaired to this day. “They also killed the slate”, says one resident.

Eight hours of navigation here, in Turriquitadó, the villagers who had to flee after accidentally inciting the anger of paramilitaries and guerrillas at the same time, adapt to their new environment. At an assembly of residents, a gentleman has something to ask Strasser of the ICRC:

“The old people are tired. They fear that other men with guns will come and tell us we have to go. Can you guarantee us that this will not happen?

“We cannot replace the state,” she replies truthfully. I cannot guarantee that this will not happen again, but we can knock on doors and support them. Let’s not leave them alone.

Its borders are infested with mines. Alirio is the best hunter. A few months ago, his dog, Orejón, went into the woods looking for something that triggered his instincts. Alirio sensed that he was prey. He went to get the shotgun at home. When he returned, he found Orejón dead. The teeth marks on his back looked like a jaguar. He followed her lead, imagining he was close. He found him on top of a tree, where he shot him down. He returned saddened by Orejón’s death, but with the satisfaction of having hunted the jaguar: “This happens once in a lifetime”. He carried the jaguar tied by the paws to a stick. Local television sent a team of reporters by helicopter after learning of the feat. Alirio keeps the animal’s sharp teeth as a reminder of that moment. Although since then he can hardly go far to hunt, the jungle looks menacing before his eyes: “The mines are more frightening than the jaguar”.

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