Latin America & Caribbean

Colombian rebels help clear mines they planted

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Media captionBBC Mundo's Natalio Cosoy spoke to Farc rebel Hector Perez about the project and his experience working alongside soldiers who he has hitherto viewed as mortal enemies.

In El Orejon, a rural area in north-west Colombia, locals are experiencing something unprecedented.

Soldiers and members of Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) sitting together, having a beer and playing cards.

"It's a privilege for our village," says resident Fabio de Jesus Munoz Garces.

The soldiers and the rebels are taking a break from demining.

They are part of a pilot project agreed as part of the ongoing peace talks between Farc and government negotiators.

Image caption Locals in El Orejon run the risk of stepping on landmines when they visit their neighbours

The project started five months ago but only now have journalists been allowed to see the work for themselves.

Before this project started, the rebels and the soldiers would have shot each other at first sight.

Now they are working together, unarmed.

But the absence of weapons does not make their work any less dangerous.

Risky land

After more than five decades of internal conflict, Colombia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

Image caption Special machines are used to help with the demining

It has the third-highest incidence of accidents caused by landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Only Afghanistan and Cambodia have more.

In Briceno, the municipality in which El Orejon is located, 51 people fell victim to explosive devices between 1990 and 2015, according to official figures.

The summit of the mountain of Alto Capitan used to be a romantic spot popular with lovers.

It was also used as a venue for weddings and other celebrations.

But its position, overlooking a deep valley, means it is of key strategic importance.

In order to prevent the army from taking up position on the mountain top, the Farc planted explosives on and around the summit.

Other spots in this lush coffee-producing area have also been mined, meaning that a stroll to visit a neighbour in one of the houses which dot the hills can prove fatal.

And while peace talks have been going on for three years, new mines keep getting planted, according to the non-governmental organisation Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

Some estimates put the number of mines and explosives in Colombia at two million, but it is impossible to know exactly how many there are.

Guerrilla life

And they are not just used by the Farc but also by Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, ELN, and gangs involved in drug trafficking.

Hector Perez is one of the people trying to remove this danger from Colombia's countryside.

Image caption Hector Perez has spent 26 years fighting for the Farc

But unlike the demining experts from non-governmental organisations who are also engaged in that task, he used to plant them himself.

He is one of the guerrilla fighters the Farc have sent to El Orejon to help with the joint demining programme.

Hector Perez, 38, joined the Farc when he was just 12 years old. He began handling explosives when he was 16.

His knowledge of the location of the mines has been key to this project.

Wounded in a firefight with the army just months before he came to El Orejon, he was at first full of mistrust of his military counterparts, he told me.

But he says he quickly warmed to them: "We became friends."

Handshake

Hector Perez works with Sgt Luis Fernando Sosa Guerrero of the army's demining platoon.

Image caption Hector Perez and Sgt Luis Fernando Sosa Guerrero were wary of each other at first

Sgt Sosa also had his reservations about working with the rebels.

He says he wondered whether they would shake his hand.

They did, greeting him with a polite "How are you, sergeant?" he recalls.

Corporal Gustavo Loaiza Buitrago says the atmosphere in El Orejon is relaxed, as if they were civilians.

But the corporal insists that he still views the Farc as an enemy.

One wrong step

And the risks in El Orejon remain very real.

On 15 July a soldier working for the demining team, Wilson de Jesus Martinez, died after stepping on an explosive device.

Image caption Wilson de Jesus Martinez died when he stepped on an IED

A white cross marks the place where the accident happened.

While the locals welcome the joint Farc and army effort to demine the area, they worry that groups other than the Farc continue to plant mines.

And they insist that there are still areas which the joint demining team has not yet tackled.

In fact, while the BBC was visiting the area, a meeting was due to be held between the government and the Farc to decide if they would extend the area they plan to demine.

While they waited for the decision, the locals could at least safely return to the top of Alto Capitan to fall in love, marry or just enjoy the stunning views, a small pleasure which could have proved deadly just months ago.

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