Improvised Explosive Devices: Invisible, living soldiers

“Well-laid mines cannot be seen,” said Felipe, a Mine Risk Education (MRE) trainer in a remote mountain in the department of Antioquia, Colombia. He was leading the first MRE workshop of the Pilot Project of Humanitarian Demining.[1] It was not the first time I had heard something about the imperceptible nature of these explosive devices. Rodolfo, a mine survivor and organizer, had described them to me numerous times as “invisible, living soldiers.” Difficult to see and detect, Rodolfo would emphasize that they could react—that is explode—with the slightest movement. The difficulty of perceiving them (their underground character) together with their own responsiveness to motion (their ability to sense the presence of their soon-to-be-victim) made them the war artifact par excellence in the sixty-year irregular and asymmetric armed conflict in Colombia. Officially, landmines have been responsible for the death and mutilation of more than 11,775 people among civilians and military personnel.[2]

The undetectability of landmines is largely due to their improvised materiality. Makeshift explosives produced with ordinary materials – usually plastic containers with little or no metal content – these devices are inexpensive (approximately $14,000 Colombian pesos, or $4.60 dollars) and cannot be sensed by metal detectors —the detection method that dominated demining practices in Colombia until recently. These devices have been referred to technically in Spanish as Artefacto Explosivo Improvisado (AEI); but they are also known as “hechizas” (homemade) and “artesanales” (hand-crafted). For a long time, they were also colloquially referred to as “quiebrapatas” (leg-breaker). Although this term has been expelled from (and condemned by) official public policy discourses, it is still regularly used by local communities affected by landmines. Quiebrapatas, I came to learn, is also the name for the obstacle installed at the access point of roads and trails in rural areas that prevents the movement or escape of livestock (Image 1).

Improvised landmines are both temporal and mobile, which renders them even more difficult to detect. With an attitude that many would define as frugal, rebel groups lay mines that can be “easily” deactivated to move them later to more strategic places, faintly warning communities to avoid walking on certain paths or visiting zones during specific hours or days. The fact that numerous guerrilla explosivistas (explosive experts) have died or have been seriously injured and maimed in the process of de/re-installation of these devices calls into question the “easiness” of this process. After the stipulated time passes, they relocate the explosive traps, and communities can, theoretically, move through those areas again. Indeed, minefields in Colombia are ephemeral and itinerant: when one minefield closes, another one opens. As a result of these supposed de/re-installations, some areas remain “factually” mined for short durations: one night, one week, a couple of months. 

Image 1: Quiebrapatas in Santa Helena, Meta. Source: Author photo.

I put the word “factual” in quotes to emphasize the affective capacity of landmines. Their power to (im)mobilize, to (de)attach and (re)make bodies, abilities, and socioterritorial relations –that is, to affect– exceeds their material presence and their functional explosive capacity. Here, the capacity to affect is relational. Rather than emanating from matter as if they were discrete and mighty entities by themselves (see Bennett, 2009, 2010; Navaro-Yashin, 2012), affect emerges and (de)escalates in the ordinary material-symbolic encounters of bodies, human or non-human (Deleuze, 1981; Stewart, 2007). Affect is both and simultaneously tangible and impalpable. Therefore, the point is not to privilege a social reality over a material one, or vice-versa, nor to argue that the two are equivalent and equally important. I contend that the power to impact, move, and attach transpires in the co-constitution of the sensible and the significant. “Landmines are fragile,” said Nathalie, a demining operations officer I interviewed during my two-year fieldwork. While simple and easy to craft, the functional duration of improvised landmines is fleeting. Like all infrastructures, it is in their nature to malfunction, to break apart, and to decay. Despite their “technical improvement” (e.g. better permeabilization, undetectability, target scope, etc.), improvised landmines are still vulnerable to environmental conditions: wind, heavy rain, or animals can easily knock down the syringe detonator and leave the mine exposed to soil, water, and mud (Image 2). “Mines and their material strategic value are as ephemeral and irregular as the dynamic of the armed conflict itself,” Nathalie claimed. Nonetheless, such material precariousness does not render landmines less threatening or less violently powerful. On the contrary, it may extend and increase their might as the instability deepens the uncertainty and unknowability that mines provoke. 

Image 2: Artefacto Explosivo Improvisado (AEI) found in El Orejón, Colombia. Source: courtesy of Norwegian People’s Aid.

Even if explosive devices might have been removed—by the guerrillas, the army, or the recent and ever-increasing demining actors—or are no longer operational, the reverberations of their presence and suspicion may deeply impact people’s social-territorial (and economic) relations. Referring to her recent experiences in minefields in Colombia, Nathalie recalled that 50 percent of the areas “cleared” by her demining organization were not “actually” mined. “We did not find a single mine in half of them!” Nathalie claimed. For her, this reality not only revealed Colombia’s ambiguous and understudied war pollution, but also showed that the possible presence of AEIs, the suspicion that they may (not) be there, has an enormous socioecological impact. For Nathalie, the “perception of contamination” (more than the contamination itself) is enough to alter people’s relationships with their territories, subsequently rendering extended plots of land “inaccessible” and “unusable.”

Indeed, landmines impact even when they do not explode. Impact here is an evocative term. It conveys how landmines’ presence and absence violently molds and permanently alters campesino (peasant) life. While it can be understood in terms of forceful contact, the collision of one thing against another, the crashing of skins and bodies —what I have called elsewhere “the explosive event” following Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2011) concept of event[3]— impact can also be understood in terms of being transformed, affected, and altered. Impact has an affective dimension. Hence, it is not only whether improvised landmines are functional, as their capacity to affect cannot (and should not) be reduced to their detonation, their explosive active potential or, as in this case, to their objective presence. 

The paradoxical temporality of landmines—their so-called short explosive life and their extensive capacity to affect—exponentially increases the impossibility of knowing with certainty whether there are mines, how long they last, whether they are active or damaged, and where they are hidden. Improvised mines hide in space as they do in time. As some people constantly reminded me, a territory that is no longer mined or never was can still be perceived as mined, because “you do not know, you never know.” The capacity of mines to order and discipline rural life produces and is produced by such uncertainty and the anxiety it creates. As people are no longer able to know and trust the territory and their own places, suspicion becomes the marker of rural ecologies. Suspicion is therefore powerful: it changes, destroys, and creates the relationships that make campesino landscapes, places, and life. In other words, suspicion turns out to be the mode of relation with el campo (countryside, rural lands, and the fields). 

Keeping suspicion alive: learning to (not) walk explosive fields

Surrounded by armed actors, humans and nonhumans alike, and entangled by war’s toxic affective relations (e.g. uncertainty, fear), peasant communities must (re)learn and rehearse where, when, and how to travel their own territories. Surviving and enduring literal and metaphorical minefields depends on such bodily and mental (re)orientations. But what exactly does it mean to (re)learn to move in rural landscapes in a context of incessant civil war? I would like to suggest that it means to move with suspicion; that is, with a sense of anticipation, hesitation, and attention.

Mine Action humanitarian employees with whom I spoke insisted that some communities have “naturalized” the risk of landmines. Convinced that they “kind of know” where the threat lies and that they are avoiding those hazardous areas, some peasants supposedly meander in their villages without attending to emerging warning signs. However, my interlocutors said that “when risk is naturalized, the danger is greater.” The problem, as others put it, is that people “se confía” (get too confident; self-assured). But minefields can appear and disappear in a matter of days: an area that was previously deemed safe may be dangerous the following day. Minefields, they suggested, are always emergent: actors, technologies, and practices of war are always on the move, appearing and disappearing. Explosive threats are bound to other presences that are military, but not exclusively. 

Mine Risk Education (MRE), one of the five pillars of humanitarian mine action, has been vital to the phenomenological training of mine-affected communities; that is, to develop specific sensory capabilities that allow them to identify and orient themselves in potentially dangerous spaces. Generally provided by the government and national and international NGOs, MRE workshops provide basic preventive information about war-contamination and offers specific exercises to put this knowledge “into practice.” “Yo me cuido y cuido a los demás [I take care of myself and others]” is the motto of UNICEF, the organization that coordinates and trains the majority of MRE operators in Colombia. The campaign uses solidarity as an articulating axis: one protects oneself, but also strives to take care of others. Here, cuidado (which I roughly translate as care) encompasses different and complementary valences: it refers to the ordinary ethical practice that seeks to attend to the needs and well-being of oneself and others, to the sensorial practice that orients attention and attunes the senses to noticing certain things (sometimes over others), and finally to the managerial practice that distributes and emphasizes personal and collective responsibilities and obligations. In other words, cuidado is unremarkable and quotidian, corporeal and worldly, and imperative and regulatory.[4] Through MRE messages and ludic activities (e.g. didactic mapping, matching memory games, and storytelling based on picture cards), campesinos are actively “trained” to enact specific practices of cuidado, including the identification or production geographies of hazards and safety (Image 3). Self-care and collective care, however, are painfully in tension with humanitarian discursive and material practices that emphasize suspicion.

Suspicion is at the core of these MRE trainings. MRE instructs communities to suspect everything. UNICEF provides MRE trainers, who are generally members of such affected communities, with a flip chart. The chart has a series of images whose legends literally read: “suspect when you see local warning signs”; “suspect when you see combat signals, bullet casings, pieces of metal, or craters of explosions”; “suspect when you see animals or people injured or dead”; “suspect when you see cables”; “suspect when you see changes in the soil and in the vegetation.” The flip chart and other visual activities also suggest that people avoid frequenting areas that probably have AEIs, Unexploded Ordnances (UXOs), or explosive traps: where there have been landmine explosions, where there are important infrastructures (including pipelines, bridges, aqueducts, and electrical towers), areas connected by trails, with sources of water and shade, abandoned houses and villages, and spaces where there have been battles or armed basecamps. Peasants are urged not to trust these areas and to think of them as, indeed, contaminated. To assume that they are minefields is, in a way, a preemptive security measure. The problem is that the areas that are said to be likely mined are also their own places. Thus, these preventive messages advise campesinos to not trust their own socioterritories. Suspicion emerges here as a safe practice.[5]

Image 3: Local peasant and two members of the Pilot Project of Humanitarian Demining mapping “geographies of mine risk and vulnerability.” Source: author.

Anticipating explosive presences, mine-affected communities are trained to be vigilant. As they walk through their own communities, they are instructed to look for “clues” on the ground, to concentrate on new vegetation growth, dead animals, or strange and unfamiliar objects. In a permanent state of alarm, campesinos must attend to anything that disrupts the ground and may point to explosive and unsafe landscapes. However, they are also reminded that is not always about disruption: growing vegetation may signal that those places have been abandoned. This means they need to look for both abandonment and disruption at the same time. Here, walking here becomes embodied forensics and an art of noticing (Tsing, 2015); that is, a practice of evidential investigation with one’s own bodily activity and a method to learn how to move through and perceive the movement of and in suspicious landscapes. This training has helped locals to develop a sensibility and an awareness of suspicious landscapes. 

Paradoxically, campesinos are also trained to be uncurious. “Si no lo botó, no lo recoja” [if you did not throw it away, do not pick it up] is one of the prevention messages. Reflecting on the MRE work done by his organization, the director of a local NGO once lamented the collateral consequences of these messages. By teaching children not to touch or pick anything up off the ground, “we kill their curiosity, their creativity.” Unfortunately, he said, “life in the countryside is full of threats.”

As a knowledge preemptive practice, MRE seeks to keep alive and vibrant the suspicion and uncertainty literally sown by landmines that are themselves still alive and vibrant, even if unfunctional. In a reality of omnipresent militarization that routinizes the bodies, apparatuses, and mechanisms of war, making unremarkable their violent presences, MRE strives to maintain and even increase the sense of suspicion in local communities. By heightening fear and uncertainty, MRE trainers hope that communities continue to be cautious and mine-related accidents will be avoided—or, at least will not take place as frequently or with as devastating effects. Thus, MRE works to defamiliarize the threats and to instruct locals to walk safely and perceptibly, to attend to elements and forces that come into view as habits, but that may suggest or foresee volatile and impactful encounters. In other words, MRE works to restore the sense of extraordinariness to suspicious landscapes, emphasizing their ungraspable, excessive, volatile, and destructive nature. To avoid entering minefields, one must bear in mind the material, affective, and ecological entanglements of militarization that both make and are made by landmines.

[1] Framed by the peace negotiation process, the Pilot Project was a joint “peace gesture” between the guerrillas of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian], or FARC, and the national government.

[2] See Descontamina-Colombia’s official website for updated statistics. Information obtain on October 02, 2019 from

[3] For Elizabeth Povinelli (2011: 3), events are “catastrophic, crisis-laden and sublime.” Because they are mostly spectacular and “extraordinary” —that is out of the routine— they must be reported and require ethical reflection and political and civic engagement. “In appearing to be spectacular, they seem to create the ontological necessity to respond ethically -a demand that we take sides.” (Povinelli, 2011: 146) In fact, reports on events must be dramatic in order to inspire human connection or, more precisely, the capacity/fantasy of putting oneself in someone else’s place. In other words, they must propel an ethics of liberal empathy. As a result, Povinelli argues, “[a]ny ethical impulse dependent on a certain kind of event and eventfulness -a crisis- flounders in this closet.” (Povinelli, 2011: 4).

[4] On care in technoscience, see Puig de La Bellacasa, 2017

[5] I cannot help but think about the echoes and connections between this regime of suspicion, which emerges as the possibility of daily survival and endurance amidst minefields, and the governance and instrumentalization of suspicion (and the dispersed practices of preemption) that characterize current regimes of securitization (e.g., the so-called ‘war on terror’).

Other essays from this forum include:

Editors' Letter.  Everyday Militarisms: Hidden in Plain Sight/Site, Caren Kaplan, Gabi Kirk, and Tess Lea. 

The Explosivity of Kelp, Javier Arbona

Residue and Restoration: Hiking through Militarized Landscapes, Toby Beauchamp

The Militarized Campus Arboretum, Gabi Kirk and Robert Moeller

Selfies and Submarines: The Social Media of Military Recruitment, Stella Maynard


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Diana Pardo Pedraza is an ethnographer of contemporary Colombia interested in researching (de)militarized rural ecologies, (post)conflict politics and economics, and multispecies relations of aid and care. Currently, she is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California, Irvine in the Department of Gender and Sexualities Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from University of California, Davis.