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article imageLandmines take heavy toll on Colombian children

By Lissy DE ABREU (AFP)     Apr 30, 2015 in World

Eight-year-old Angie was running to catch up with her cousins on their way home from church when she stepped on a landmine that exploded and ripped off her leg.

Like hundreds of Colombian children whose lives have been derailed by mines, the impact on her and her family was measureless.

Angie had to leave school after that fateful day in 2008, and her father, Raul Trespalacios, had to quit his job so they could move from their farm in northern Colombia to the city for treatment and rehabilitation.

Their story is all too common in Colombia, where the countryside is littered with landmines more than five decades into an intractable guerrilla war.

"When a child steps on a mine, it changes not only her life but her family's," said Claudia Bernal of activist group Colombianitos ("Little Colombians"), which helps child mine victims get prostheses and rehab.

"Often they live in the countryside and have to leave to get treatment for their children or because they live in fear of the armed groups that placed the mine," she told AFP.

Last month, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla group, announced a landmark agreement to work together on clearing mines as part of a two-year-old peace process.

But in the past 25 years, more than 11,000 people have been killed or wounded by landmines in Colombia, including 1,124 minors.

It has the second-highest casualty rate from landmines in the world, after Afghanistan.

Of Colombia's child mine victims, 21 percent have been killed and 79 percent wounded -- the result of a weapon designed to maim its victims and maximize the burden on the enemy.

- Traumatized families -

Colombian Angie Paola Trespalacios  who was victim of a landmine explosion when she was eight years ...
Colombian Angie Paola Trespalacios, who was victim of a landmine explosion when she was eight years old, makes her exercises at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Center of Colombia (CIREC) in Bogota, Colombia, on April 14, 2015
Eitan Abramovich, AFP/File

A child's loss of an arm or leg can in some ways be more traumatic for parents than children, experts say.

"Children cope with the loss much more calmly than adults. The real problem... is families that can't accept and manage extremely large amounts of guilt," said psychologist Maythem Mendez of the CIREC rehabilitation center in the Colombian capital, Bogota.

Angie, who is now a fast-growing 15-year-old and considers herself a "completely normal" teenager, was at the rehabilitation center to try on a new prosthetic leg, which will probably have to be replaced again in a year.

As he watched her try out her new prosthesis, Raul, a single father who is now 45, recalled the long struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives.

After five years of refusing to leave Angie's side, he finally managed to go back to work in the fields two years ago.

"A psychologist told me I had gone even crazier than Angie. She deals with it better than me. I'm still not used to seeing her like that, even after seven years. I saw her born whole and now there's something missing," he said.

- Doubts about mine clearing -

Her father says he is skeptical of the new demining program, which is due to begin in several weeks.

"I don't trust them," he said.

Colombia, which signed the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning the use of landmines, has admitted it faces a tall task to eradicate them.

President Juan Manuel Santos has warned it will take at least a decade.

Authorities say nearly 700 of the country's 1,120 municipalities may be mined, and it is not uncommon to find landmines near schools or sports fields.

"If God helps us, we'll have peace in Colombia," said Angie.

"I'd like that, because then no one else would fall" on a mine, she added.

Since it erupted in the 1960s, the Colombian conflict has killed 220,000 people, drawing in the army, leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

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