I am kneeling on a wet cement floor, staring up with pleading eyes at two young boys seated just above me on a winding staircase. Cue the awkward silence. Please, I think. Please, please talk to me.
They are staring back at me suspiciously, unsure why I'm here, why I'm asking questions about a day in their lives almost a year ago. The day they picked up what they thought was a toy while walking home from school, and instantly became statistics for Colombia's growing landmine problem. The sun is going down over this not-so-safe neighborhood in southern Bogota. My feet have gone numb. The adults nearby sigh impatiently.
This is not going well.
It takes a while for Jesus and Jonathan -- both about 10 years old -- to open up to me. Not that I blame them. This strange lady kneeling uncomfortably before them is not alone. There's a cameraman behind her, awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot. There's that whirring camera too; the one at which they frequently steal glances, in between stretches of determinedly avoiding eye contact with me. There are more adults, some from the halfway house in which they're staying, others from the nonprofit group that funded and arranged their trip to the city for doctor check-ups and prosthetic fittings. The boys had just made the three-day, car-and-bus journey from their home in Putumayo province, an isolated area, tucked deep in the rural and remote border region with Ecuador. And now, here they sit, facing down the adults, camera equipment, and strange American lady.
If I were them, I probably wouldn't want to talk to me either.
EG: "Eventually, they either tire of the silence or take pity on me, and decide to open up. They share their stories in matter-of-fact tones. I picked it up and it exploded. The details are shared with absolutely no emotion. There was blood everywhere. And really, why should it matter? For them, talking about it doesn't change what happened. I lost my hand and he lost his sight.
I smile and nod encouragingly as they talk. I try not to show how their detached tone alarms me. The landmine victims I'd met before these boys were mostly adults -- men and women who struggled to come to terms with the devastating effects of losing a limb, or losing a loved one. Jesus and Jonathan answered my questions in the same way they likely would if I'd asked what they'd had for breakfast, or how they were doing in school (for the record: Jonathan's first in his class, Jesus is third).
The sad fact is that their stories are not that different from hundreds of other landmine victims in Colombia who suffer a similar fate every year, caught in the silent crossfire of a 40-year civil war that doesn't seem to have an end in sight. Casualties here occur at a rate of three-a-day. The sadder fact is, this story could've been done 5 years ago and it wouldn't have been that different. I hope that's not true 5 years from now. But the landmines are everywhere in the countryside -- where the majority of Colombians live -- and reining them in is far more difficult than spreading them out. So the numbers just keep getting worse. Of all the worldwide landmine casualties last year, almost 40% occured in just three countries: Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Colombia. The former two countries rate relatively high on the international conscience these days, and received over $90 million between them in 2005 for mine action aid; Colombia got just over $2 million.
But the numbers all fade away as I kneel before these boys. They say what they have to say, unaware of, or maybe indifferent to, where their stories will end up. And when they realize there will be no more questions, they suddenly get their second winds -- eager to show off their toys and draw pictures on pages ripped from my notebook. Pictures of stickfigures playing outside, a single-windowed house next to a lake, a flower and a tree under clouds. Simple drawings they take their time in crafting.
The feeling comes back into my feet, the adults disperse, and Jesus and Jonathan politely say goodbye as I leave. I am sitting in downtown Bogota traffic, clutching a bag full of tapes; tapes with the boys' stories, with stories from other victims and expert interviews and scenic shots of countryside. But I can't stop staring at these drawings.