TOLEMAIDA, Colombia – Dressed in army fatigues, Alejandra Segura patrols a field in central Colombia, checking the work of her fellow soldiers. They are training to clear landmines, and Segura is the only woman in sight.
In fact, as we drive around the Colombian army base – a sprawling complex in the “tierra caliente,” or hot country, three hours outside of Bogota – she is the only woman in uniform anywhere.
For decades, Colombia’s female army recruits were relegated to back-office positions. That changed in 2009, when a new policy allowed women to serve. Since then, women like Segura have been able to rise up the ranks. While they are trained for battle, they have not yet been deployed to combat positions.
Segura, 23, joined in the first wave of female recruitment. Eight years later, she is helping to train the next generation of demining specialists, who will help clear Colombia’s soil of the deadly remains of a 50-year civil conflict that is only just coming to an end.
Last year, the government agreed to a peace deal with the country’s left-wing FARC guerrilla group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). More than 7,000 fighters have demobilized since the agreement, but clearing the detritus of the war is going to take much longer. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has promised that the country will be free of landmines by 2021.
On this day, a torrential downpour has cleared for bright blue skies. The humidity is such that it feels like steam is rising off the grass. In one of the fields, some former recruits are being tested to check they are still up to standard.
It takes immense patience to work in demining: There are several stages to clearing a vegetable-patch-sized clearing. First, the soldiers search for cables or wires, triggers that might have been left above ground. Then, they start to clear the foliage, cutting and collecting tiny blades of grass so they don’t set off an explosive device below. Then the land is checked with a metal detector, or with dogs if the deminers suspect a chemical IED might have been left there.
If they get a positive reading, the dig begins. In a week, the deminers might find nothing, or they might come across four or five homemade explosives in one day.
It is slow, painstaking work, taking a whole day to clear a patch 3–6ft (1–2m) square – and that’s working 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., often in scorching temperatures.
The task they are facing is gargantuan: Almost every region in the country is thought to be plagued with IEDs and handmade explosives. National statistics show there have been 11,486 victims since 1990, and this year 15 people have been killed or injured by landmines, five of them children.
To deal with the challenge, the army has expanded from one demining battalion to seven, and drafted in soldiers, like Segura, to help train the troops. They have found that local communities, which have seen decades of conflict between the government and the FARC rebels, open up more easily to women, trust them more, and give them better information on where the community believes the mines might be laid.
“It’s not always easy to get good information from these communities – these are often people who don’t trust the army,” says Segura, who has swapped her green combat clothes for the navy blue of the humanitarian demining brigade. “Previously, talking about where the mines were would have meant risking their lives.”
Segura grew up in Villavicencio, a frontier town in a region plagued by violence between the army, guerrilla fighters and organized crime groups. As a child, she says she often saw people who had been injured by landmines – they had lost their legs or their hands, or both.
Villavicencio is in Meta, the most contaminated area in the country, with almost 2,000 acres (8 million square meters) of land affected, government figures show. Rumor has it that during the worst years, locals there would send livestock through the fields ahead of them because from one day to the next the path might have been mined. If it had been, they lost their herd, but at least they came out alive.
“It is thought that anti-personnel mines have been planted in 30 departments – that’s practically 98 percent of Colombia,” Segura says. “That affects communities on a socioeconomic level, with people who can’t use all their land to farm, and so it has a big impact in these rural zones where people live off the land.
“It affects paths to schools and access to water holes. But there is also a psychological impact, and that is what we are trying to combat by generating confidence in the job we are doing.”
There are currently eight women in Colombia’s demining brigade, all of them certified project leaders. They, too, have gone through months of vigorous training and in-the-field experience so that they become experts on the process – and so that they can recognize the psychological impact this kind of job can have on the recruits.
“This work,” Segura explains, “it’s hard. The soldiers have to be motivated, well-behaved and physically fit to work eight hours a day, six days a week. Most important is that they are emotionally stable – you need to be able to confront an invisible enemy that can strike at any moment. Even the best-trained person can be scared. There’s always a risk, but you can’t let it affect your judgment.”
In some of the ranks, Segura says, there is still machismo, but most people are now concentrating on the job in hand. “It’s your work, not your gender, that matters,” she says.
“This is a big change,” says Segura. “But the army fought so that this could happen. Now we are working to make Colombia free of mines. This is a step so that people can go back to the lands they were displaced from.”