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Since the late 1980s, photographer Gervasio Sanchez has covered the war-ravaged regions of Cambodia, Bosnia, Mozambique, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The civilian misery he has witnessed is now on view at the Spanish Cultural Center in Coral Gables.
"Mined Lives, 10 Years" features Sanchez's gut-wrenching black-and-white photo essays of the victims of anti-personnel mines. It's all part of his international campaign to bring attention to the innocent casualties of war.
The 49-year-old Spanish war correspondent was in town recently for the opening of his traveling exhibit. He even took part in a roundtable discussion with Gustavo Laurie from the United Nations Mine Actions Service. Sanchez has also compiled the images on display into a book that complements the show. "Today there are still tens of millions of these deadly devices scattered throughout populated areas worldwide," Sanchez says. "Where the news media is often more focused on reporting the numbers of casualties during war, I am interested in recording the personal stories of the nameless victims and their struggles for survival with dignity."
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Sanchez, who has won international journalism awards for his work with Spain's La Vanguardia, Heraldo de Aragón, and the BBC, has also served as a special peace envoy for UNESCO since 1998. Long after the gunfire has ended, he has returned to the killing fields. "For me, the people who suffer the consequences of war have a story to tell that for the most part remains inconclusive," Sanchez says. "I try to treat these victims of mines from a personal view. In many cases, I have seen some of these child casualties grow to adulthood and start families. For me, one of the errors of journalism is not to record the most fragile stories, to overlook those who live with courage and integrity daily while overcoming horrible mutilations and amputations."
In a powerful suite of photographs shot over a decade, Sanchez captures the harrowing ordeal of Adis Smajic, a 27-year-old Muslim who lives in Sarajevo and was nearly killed by a mine in March 1996.
He lost his left eye and right arm from the explosion; his face and body are riddled with scars.
Sanchez's photos show Smajic as a boy undergoing a 36-hour operation to save his life. They also illustrate his growth into a strapping six-foot-six-inch-tall man who plays in a hip-hop group and lives on a war pension with his mother and sister in his native village of Dobrijna. His father, grandmother, and an uncle were killed by Serbs.
Since his injury, Smajic has endured 30 operations. He has also made seven trips to Barcelona for extensive cosmetic surgery on his face. For most of these medical procedures, Sanchez has been at his side.
The journalist's photographs depict the various stages of Smajic's recovery. In one photo, the young man gently caresses his girlfriend Naida Vreto's cheek with his prosthetic arm. "In many cases, these people have become like part of my family," Sanchez says. "I have grown so close to people like Adis that I have photographed him more than I have my own 11-year-old son, Diego, through the years."
Sanchez continues traveling to places such as Mozambique, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of mines still dot the countryside. Though many nations signed the 1997 Ottawa Treaty to ban land mines, the United States, China, Russia, and India have yet to sign the accord, he says. "These are among the nations still selling the most arms in the world," Sanchez observes. "The great powers and multinationals are the ones supporting armed conflict to promote their own interests, whether the fighting is over diamonds or oil," he says. "Ultimately, it's the defenseless that pay the price."
He says individuals such as Mozambique's Sofia Elface Fumo bear testimony to civil war and greed. "Sofia's story reflects the human misery and armed conflict in the region," Sanchez intones. "She demonstrates incredible strength... while trying to raise her two kids."
The young woman was 11 years old when she stepped on a land mine while collecting firewood near her village in 1993. Her legs were severed, and her sister died of shrapnel wounds a month after the accident. "They are the true heroes," Sanchez says. "Many of my subjects overcome insurmountable odds daily to educate themselves and their children and break cycles of poverty. They are forces of nature.
"In Colombia alone, about 1,000 anti-personnel mine accidents wound civilians each year. Many of these explosives are homemade and packed with human excrement. It's incredible how evil man can be, but the victims of these tragedies have taught me to have confidence in humanity," he sighs.
Sanchez's haunting work is a sober reminder of the crippling failure of our government to support a treaty to end the indiscriminate maiming.