4.30 AM. Cajibío camp in Cauca, a departamento scarred by Colombia’s fifty-year conflict. A team of mine clearance experts unzip their tents, slip on their suits and gather for breakfast. After a daily reminder of the safety rules, they check their mine clearance equipment and head towards a 411-sq.m area of contaminated land in La Venta. Angie, 20, puts on her helmet, kneels down and prods the earth, centimetre by centimetre, as the sun rises gently over Colombia - the second most mine-affected country in the world.
“It’s not easy clearing this area because it’s next to the Pan-American Highway. It’s littered with metal and it’s really noisy all the time, so we can’t use metal detectors, because they don’t spot the explosive devices, and we don’t hear the signal. We need to do everything manually, which is stressful, time-consuming and takes a lot of concentration. We’ve destroyed one improvised explosive device in three months. That may not sound like much, but it could have injured people, and maybe we’ve saved someone’s life. For me, that’s enormous,” explains Angie.
Angie didn’t always want to become a mine clearance expert: “I grew up just like any other girl: I love my family, my girlfriends, and shopping. I wanted to work for the police. After I finished my studies, I graduated, I was qualified to work for the ‘criminalista‘. I wanted to do justice and help my country. Ten months ago, I saw HI’s job advertisement and I just knew it was for me. I applied and took a series of exams, explained why I wanted to do the job, and showed I was fit enough (abs, running and so on). They also asked if I could carry more than five kilos - the weight of the suit - for long periods and if I was flexible, because there was travel involved. I said yes to everything. And they hired me.
More than fifty of us took the intensive month-long training course for mine clearance experts in Cajibío, sleeping in tents at night, learning how to clear mines, and so on. I learned a lot,” explains Angie.
When Angie talks about the risks of the job, she’s upfront but confident: “I’m afraid, but I think if I follow the safety rules and keep my helmet on, nothing will happen to me. What really keeps me going is the idea of freeing our land.”
Every six weeks, Angie goes home to see her mother, Olga, who runs a restaurant in Santander de Quilichao. Olga finds it hard to think about Angie working in the mine fields every day. “We live in an area that was badly affected by the conflict. I remember spending whole nights under a bed because I could sense there were armed men walking along the walls of my house, and hearing grenades explode. Our neighbour’s house caught fire. I lost relatives. The war left deep scars. Then Angie told me she wanted to be a mine clearance expert. It was very tough. But I took the heat: she’s doing what she wants to do. She’s in God’s hands now.”
At the end of the day, Angie is lying in bed in her tent, which she shares with Leonela, 19, the team’s youngest member: “I like camp life, the sense of community, sharing everything. We’re like a family. I’m proud of doing something to secure peace in my country. I’ll carry on until Colombia is mine free,” she adds with a smile.
 Branch of the police specialised in criminal investigations.