When The HALO Trust invited me to join their US Board of Directors following my retirement from the US Department of State five years ago, I saw an immediate opportunity to further my commitment to humanitarian mine clearance. A long-standing admirer of The HALO Trust, I was particularly keen to witness the work of its local teams in some of the most mine-affected countries in the world. Last October I was lucky enough to visit some remarkable men and women working in one of the most beautiful places in the Americas: the lush mountains of Colombia’s Sonson region.
Winding my way through the steep slopes of terraced crops with Programme Manager Nick Smart, I had to catch my breath several times. At 9000 ft above sea level, the scenery is – quite literally - breathtaking. But the red and white stakes dotted among the greenery quickly bring you back down to earth when you remember each one marks the location of un-cleared explosives.
The men and women clearing these mountainsides of landmines face enormous challenges. Thick vegetarian must be cut away manually before detection can take place, the inclines are perilously steep. But they are determined to rid their land of the scourge of landmines for good; indeed, often their motivation is fuelled by their own suffering from the decades-long conflict.
Take Marleny Alvarez, who has risen up through the HALO ranks to become a supervisor.
Every day I am contributing towards peace in my country,’ she says. ‘It brings me great joy and satisfaction to know that my work is directly benefiting communities.
Marleny’s family was displaced three times during the conflict after her father was murdered by paramilitaries. They were forced to eventually settle in Marleny’s birthplace of Mesones, only to find that the family home had been destroyed and the surrounding land was heavily mined. When her older brother accidentally stepped on a landmine, he narrowly escaped death as the blast exploded in the opposite direction. ‘It was a miracle,’ she says.
Marleny’s fortunes changed when she encountered a HALO survey team working with the local community to identify suspected minefields. She signed up for demining work and was promoted to team leader within six months of passing her demining and paramedic training. Within a year she had been appointed to supervisor.
It’s hard to convey the emotions I felt as I listened to Marleny’s story during my time on the mountainside. No one should endure such violence and brutality, yet these people are full of hope and optimism as they go about their task of clearing Colombia of mines for good.
"HALO has been the best thing that has happened to me,” says Martha Quintero, another HALO supervisor whose father was killed and family uprooted by the conflict.
It’s taught me so much. I know how to use a detector, I know how to cannulate someone in an emergency. Before, I wouldn’t go near a minefield. But now, when we hear about one, we go and get the mines out.
My visit to Colombia was all too short-lived and I left longing to explore more of this magnificent land and its warm, brave people. As I boarded my plane I thought back to the joyous ceremony I attended on my last day, to celebrate the handing over of the La Virgen minefield to the community. It felt good to know that these hard working, proud people now have a brighter future. It was also deeply satisfying to see first hand how HALO helps people rebuild their lives after the devastation of conflict. I have always been an advocate of manual (human) demining and my time in Colombia reinforced my view; the human endeavor I witnessed brings rigorous reassurance to HALO's operations, while at the same time equipping team members with economic security and a valuable new skillset for the future. Now that’s what I call sustainable impact.