Latin Victims are Invisible to the International Media
Colombia continues to be the country with the highest number of new anti-personnel landmine victims in the world, with 10 other countries on the American continents having problems with mines as well. This situation, however, seems not to exist for the international news media. Even specialized publications seldom show a picture or publish an article about Central or South America; consequently, most people still believe that the landmine problem is confined exclusively to Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
In November 2008, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines issued the Landmine Monitor Report 2008: Toward a Mine-Free World, which shows Colombia (from 2005 until the present) as the No. 1 country in the world for new anti-personnel landmine victims. Allow us to repeat this important fact: Presently, no other country in the world has more accidents from landmines than Colombia. Repeating this statement is necessary because the international media and public continue to ignore Colombia’s situation.
As journalists, photographers, researchers and documentarians, we have participated in countless conferences, seminars, exhibitions, forums, interviews and film festivals across Latin America since 2004, denouncing this situation and informing others that, in addition to Colombia, 10 other Latin American countries also deal with mines in their territories. Of the thousands of people that participated with us in these events, the ones who were not astonished by this information were rare, and most of them were from Colombia. Even in Peru, Venezuela and Mexico, only the representatives of organizations directly connected to mine action were aware of the issue.
In Brazil, we obtained support from TV Brasil Canal Integración, which produces a daily newscast about South America, for the finalization of our documentary, Mined America. None of the people we worked with were aware that their neighbors walk on minefields. In the foreword of our book by the same name, the renowned photographer Tim Page, a mine victim himself, attests that Mined America “is the first … light on the issue from Latin America.” Page, who has participated in mineaction activities with Mines Advisory Group throughout Latin Victims are Invisible to the International Media Colombia continues to be the country with the highest number of new anti-personnel landmine victims in the world, with 10 other countries on the American continents having problems with mines as well. This situation, however, seems not to exist for the international news media. Even specialized publications seldom show a picture or publish an article about Central or South America; consequently, most people still believe that the landmine problem is confined exclusively to Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia and the Balkans for over 10 years, had no knowledge about the seriousness of Colombia’s plight. How could the media have ignored such an alarming fact for so long? In addition, what are the consequences of this lack of knowledge for the population of the affected areas?
The Big Media
Traditionally, the media, in part through the actions of celebrities and the entertainment industry, have highlighted the issue of mines in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Princess Diana never visited the mine victims in Nicaragua. Angelina Jolie has not searched for orphans to adopt among the relatives of landmine victims in Peru. Not a single cent of the money collected in 2007 by the No More Landmines organization through the sale of 20,000 pairs of shoes donated by artists such as Elton John, Ewan McGregor, Daniel Radcliffe and Robin Williams was used to help the thousands of new mine victims in Colombia each year. As cause and/or consequence of this fact, even when movies show the subject in countries not having a “traditional history” of mines, the venue is usually Europe, with works such as No Man’s Land in Bosnia and Beyond Borders in Chechnya.
It is important to emphasize the difference between the monies invested by donors in nations that are widely known to suffer from the mines issue, such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Lebanon and the countries in Africa, and the monetary expenditures in Latin American countries, especially Colombia. In spite of having officially registered 1,110 new victims in 2005, 1,106 in 2006 and 895 in 2007, Colombia is ranked only 10th in funding for anti-mine activities in 2007, with a total amount of US$8.8 million. By way of comparison, Cambodia, with 352 victims listed in 2007, received $30.8 million for mine action in that year. The situation has improved a bit since 2006, however, when Colombia was listed as 18th in the investment ranking with $4.3 million. This was a lower ranking than Nicaragua, which, in that year, registered only seven victims and was granted $5.7 million.
Symptomatically, this also occurs with regard to the presence of pictures of Latin American and especially Colombian victims, both in specialized publications and in newspapers and magazines with general content. In Brazil, for instance, with the exception of publishing a few of our articles in venues such as Folha de S.Paulo and Rolling Stone, (a magazine focused on pop music and culture) in recent years only the O Globo newspaper has published a substantial frontpage article about the subject. The article featured eight pictures of victims and was placed in its Sunday magazine on 11 November 2007. This publication, however, had no influence whatsoever on any newscast of TV Globo, the largest and most important television network in the country. Even in the Colombian press, the publications with detailed reports on the subject are scarce. Paradoxically, the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone published an article. In the same vein, a series of articles showing some very touching pictures of Colombian mine victims was published in Issue 98 of the men’s magazine Soho.
With regard to specialized publications, things are not that different. Over the years, the Executive Summary of the Landmine Monitor Report, published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines since 1999, always includes pictures of mine victims on the cover; however, on only two occasions the pictured individuals were Latin American. Not surprisingly, in its first issue, the cover showed pictures of a Cambodian child who had been photographed four years earlier in 1995. Inside, the pictures emphasized African and Asian victims, despite the publication already reporting that Colombia was the only country in the Americas where landmines were still being emplaced, and that Colombia and Nicaragua had the biggest contamination problems on the continent. Only in the following year (2000) would the publication show the first pictures of Colombia, the photograph of a quiebrapatas (“pawbreaker”) on page 20 and another of a victim of the Bolívar departamento (state) on page 23. The 2000 report listed, for the first time in the Executive Summary, the official number of victims in Colombia in 1999–2000 as a total of 98, which was substantially less than the more than 1,000 victims in Cambodia but double the approximate 50 victims in Nicaragua estimated then by the Nicaraguan Red Cross.
The 2001 Landmine Monitor Report shows one of the most beautiful images of the whole series on its cover: the sepia picture of a crouching child occupying the space between a crutch and the healthy leg of an adult, with another victim sitting in a wheelchair in the background. The child’s roundish face and slightly almond eyes, in addition to the Spanish inscription on the T-shirt of the young man in the background,
“Alguien mi ama, San Salvador” (“Somebody loves me, San Salvador”), suggest that the picture may have been taken in El Salvador. The edition, available online at the ICBL Web site, however, does not provide further information regarding the photographer; therefore, we could not confirm the victim’s country of birth. According to the report, it was not possible to quantify officially the number of victims in El Salvador between 2000 and 2001—the most pessimistic estimate was 25 affected individuals.
Regarding the showcasing of Latin American images within the 2001 LMR Executive Summary, there was only one picture of mines being destroyed in Argentina, one of the donation of used prostheses and another of prostheses being manufactured, these last two in Nicaragua. On page 34, there is one photograph of a Latin- American victim, taken in January of 2000. From January 2000–June 2001, 23 victims in Nicaragua were reported, while in the same period, Colombia registered over 200 victims. Even with this large increase of victims, the publication failed to provide any images to illustrate the problem on the report pages.
In subsequent editions of the LMR, this pattern persists. Despite the continuing increase in the casualties by mines in the Americas (documented in the pages of the report), the pictures of the area are mostly of treaty signatures, identified fields, demining work and destruction of stored mines, which are invariably shown in the central pages of the report. The covers are reserved for victims in Africa (Angola, 2002 and 2005), Asia (India, 2003 and Cambodia, 2006) and Eastern Europe (Chechnya, 2004).
The first pictures of Colombian victims appear only on pages 55 and 56 of the LMR Executive Summary for 2005. It was in this year that Colombia reached the top position on the global ranking for mine victims, with 1,373 individuals affected between January 2004 and August 2005. In the edition of the following year, it became clear that no other country would take Colombia’s place anytime soon. Even in light of these circumstances, the report opted to publish a portrait of a Cambodian mine victim on its cover; the only picture of Latin Americans showed a soccer game with Salvadorian mine victims.
Not until the 2007 edition would a Colombian victim be granted a Landmine Monitor cover photo. In the same edition, two additional pictures of Colombian victims would appear on pages 34 and 43, the last relatively small; a Nicaraguan photo also appeared on page 45. However, in the most recent edition, issued in November 2008, the picture on the cover is of a sapper searching for the last mines in Albania before the 2010 Ottawa Convention deadline. The internal pages of the Executive Summary show only three pictures of landmine victims from the Americas: two Salvadorians (in the same photograph, again of a soccer game with disabled individuals), a sole Colombian, and a person whose nationality was not disclosed. This happened within a year in which there was a record number of accidents with mines in six Latin-American countries: Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru. By way of comparison, seven pictures of Asian victims are shown in the publication, and four of them depict Cambodian accident victims.
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action
Unfortunately, the same situation has been occurring in The Journal of ERW and Mine Action. The first picture of Latin America shown in the publication, in its third edition, Issue 2.2 (June 1998), displays a controlled explosion in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Images of Latin Americans, however, would only appear much later, in Issue 5.2 (August 2001), which was entirely dedicated to the subject of South and Central America. This issue of The Journal was also the first time in which the situation in Colombia was more adequately presented. Images used included a photo of children raising consciousness about mines in El Salvador and an image of a 10-year-old mine victim in Nicaragua.
Within Issue 5.2, the only pictures of Latin American victims that stood out were taken by professionals and came with a short caption describing the scene. A good example of this was the picture in the article showing Salvador Santamaria Rivera, a former guerrilla and landmine victim, helping adjust a prosthesis for another war veteran who had been hit by an M-16 mine. Unfortunately, the caption does not discuss in what country the two men reside. Another picture in the same issue shows another former guerrilla and mine victim, Manuel de Jesus Orellana, working intently on a child’s prosthesis at a clinic run by a nongovernmental organization in El Salvador. This edition also presents an interesting picture showing 10 former soldiers who were wounded during the war in Guatemala, sitting at the central plaza of the country’s capital. As we can see, even in an edition focused on the continent, no pictures of victims or of anti-mine activities in Colombia could be found. Moreover, in the following editions of The Journal, pictures of Latin America are extremely scarce.
A Latin American survivor of an AP landmine would only appear on a cover of The Journal in Issue 8.2 (November 2004), an edition that again focused on the Americas. Despite the fact that Colombia had already officially registered 421 new mine victims up to September of that year, the pictures still focused mostly on Central America, with photographs that, in general, had been taken by the authors of the texts themselves and not by professional photographers. The sole exception is, perhaps, the haunting photo that is paired with the excellent article “Colombia: Mine Action and Armed Conflict” by Eric Filippino. Unfortunately, in addition to the absence of the photographer’s credit, the caption does not elucidate if the dead policemen shown in the photograph were, in fact, victims of landmines—especially considering that the Colombian soldier shown walking over the bodies in the photo is displayed with a metal detector in his hands.
The next edition, Issue 9.1 (August 2005), showed possibly the best of all the cover images of AP mine survivors within the entire Journal collection. The photo, taken by the Armenian photographer German Avagyan, gently portrays little Armine Yeghiazaryan. Paradoxically, the only LatinAmerican victims shown in the summer edition of 2005 were Nicaraguan, even though 2005 is the same year in which Colombia reached the top of the list of countries with the highest number of accidents with mines. From January to August in that year, 510 persons wounded or killed by mines and ERW were officially registered.30 From January to August in the same year, only one mine-related incident in Nicaragua occured. In editions up to Issue 11.1 (August 2007), only eight images of persons wounded by mines in Latin America appeared in The Journal, including three pictures we provided that were taken in Colombia along with another taken in Peru.
While in most regions of the world, including Central America, the problem of AP mines has decreased or stabilized due to the stigmatization of these weapons by the Ottawa Convention, landmines are still a very real threat for millions of people in South America, especially in Colombia. If the general and specialized media, however, persist in providing little visibility on the subject, victims will continue being ignored by the public, and it will become increasingly difficult to obtain the funds necessary to assist them, as well as for other mine-action activities. While international public attention currently turns to the issue of cluster bombs and other munitions, the Latin-American victims of old-fashioned anti-personnel mines are in great danger of disappearing from the eyes of the world.
Summer 2009 | the journal of ERW and mine action