Nicaragua, De-mining the Border (6/02)

Growing up in the remote mountains along Nicaragua’s border with Honduras, it was Neyrin Rivera’s job to mind the cows. When one wandered off, he knew he had to fetch it, or else face a hiding when he returned to the one-room, mud-brick shack he called home. But he didn’t know that he was following the errant cow into a minefield.

When the ground exploded beneath him, the seven-year-old had no idea what had happened. His leg had become a pulsating stump of blood, torn flesh, and protruding bone. “I didn’t know anything about mines, even what a mine was,” says Neyrin, now 11 and an old hand at riding a bicycle and playing football with the plastic prosthesis that replaced his right leg below the knee.

In Nicaragua’s northern hinterlands, people of all ages with plastic limbs and limps, hooks for hands, crutches, and wheelchairs are a common sight. During the 1980s, when the Sandinista government was fighting US-backed rebels known as the Contras, over 135,000 land mines were buried in Nicaragua. It eventually became the most heavily mined country in the Americas.

Since the end of the war in 1989, mines have blown up an average of two people per month. Most incidents occur along the rugged border where the explosives were embedded to deter the Honduras-based Contras from crossing into Nicaragua.

Today, under the supervision of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Nicaraguan Army is working ambitiously to undo its lethal handiwork. Nearly 70,000 mines have been dug up so far, and the army is on track to clear the country’s minefields by early 2005. In other good news, the military is scheduled to finish detonating 136,800 mines in its warehouses this year.

“This is a way that the army is re-vindicating itself, re-establishing its credibility, since after all they were the ones who planted the mines,” says Carlos J. Orozco, coordinator of the OAS demining program. “But now they’re committed to demining, and that’s favorably viewed.”

It’s a laborious job. Although army archives list all the mined areas by coordinates, the information isn’t always reliable or complete. The devastating 1998 Hurricane Mitch shifted thousands of mines, setting back mine-location mapping by three years.

The terrain also poses logistical difficulties. The thickly forested mountains, where most of the mines lie, can only be swept manually, which means it’s an especially tedious, risk-laden task that occasionally results in maimed soldiers.

The day the “all clear” is sounded can’t come soon enough for villagers. After fleeing to Honduras during the war, many returned to find their fields had been turned into deathtraps, and could no longer be used for growing food. “This here used to be all corn and beans,” says Milagros Montes, who lost both her legs, as  well a place to plant her crops, in the minefield next to her adobe hut. The field has been fenced off and posted with red signs, each marked with a skull and crossbones for those who can’t read the letters spelling “Danger!”

Others have had precious livestock blown up by mines, which grow more sensitive as they rust and can stay active for up to five decades. “I lost 14 cows in just one night,” says Filomena Garcia. “All in all, I’ve lost 60 animals.”

No Job for Amateurs

Since many people don’t know what a mine is or how dangerous they can be, OAS officials have launched a public awareness campaign. Hoping to reach even the most remote villages, they often make arduous journeys up the mountains on horseback, armed with words of warning and illustrated booklets for the illiterate.

“People have learned to live with mines around here,” explains Porfirio Gomez, who lost a leg to a “Bouncing Betty” jumping mine in 1984 and has since become an anti-mine activist. “Children zigzag through minefields to get to school. People have piles of mines beside their houses or under their beds. They think someone is going to come and buy them.” Some seek out mines in order to take off the needle-like fuse, which can be used as a firing pin to fashion homemade hunting guns. Others think they can sell the devices as scrap metal or war artifacts.

Fishermen like to explode mines in rivers to yield an easy catch. Still others like to play hero as amateur mine detectors. But luck usually runs out, leading to predictable results. One amateur detector, Juan Lopez, says he removed 3,058 mines “to help people” before finally halting his efforts after his second leg was blown off.

“We have to keep telling people not to handle the mines, but it’s children who are the most vulnerable, so we visit the schools,” explains J. Ramon Zepeda, who runs the public awareness project in the town of Ocotal. Children are given backpacks, notebooks, and rulers with pictures of the different types of mines they might find.

Heartbreaking cases abound, like that of Blanca Chamorro, who was playing in a field last July when she spotted something in the dirt. “It looked like a little round stone,” recalls the pie-faced eight-year-old. “I uncovered it and took off a little wire and it exploded right away.” Her arms now end in stumps, and her slight body is pockmarked with shrapnel scars.

With next to no government support for mine victims, the OAS assumes the roughly $500 it costs for each patient’s medical care, prosthesis, and rehabilitation at Managua’s National Prosthesis Center. They also cover the bus fare that most victims – subsistence farmers or small coffee-growers – can’t pay.

But after mastering their new plastic limbs, the victims are faced with an even bigger dilemma – earning a living in the face of society’s prejudice against the disabled. “We’re very grateful for the prostheses. We could never afford these. But then what? No one will give us a job,” says activist Gomez. “People don’t want charity, they want a chance.”

In the hope of providing an example, the Prosthesis Center employs several mine victims as receptionists and prosthesis makers, and plans to offer more jobs as they arise. Meanwhile, the OAS is also talking with the government about starting a joint program to train mine victims for jobs such as tailors and cobblers. “That’s the challenge we will have even when all the mines are removed,” says Orozco.

There will also be plenty of work for the deminers, who have become known as experts in the field. The OAS frequently receives requests to send Nicaraguans to advise on removing mines in countries such as Colombia and Chile. “We already have 12 years of experience doing this,” notes Orozco. “Now we have the capacity to export this knowledge and help others.”

Christina Hoag is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. She visited the border region of Nicaragua last winter with an OAS mission.