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  • Writer's pictureAttia Qureshi

Day 6: Guerillas, Evacuation, and Indigenous Associations

As you can tell from the title, today was a somewhat crazy day, in many ways. The day started out early, as we headed toward my second to last session with two Indigenous associations. They had started out as one group, and split recently due to internal conflict. While we were on our way to the session, I get some information that throws me off my game: The ELN (a still hostile and active guerilla group in Colombia) had posted a nationwide terrorist threat. You can read about it and watch the video here. They say that no one is allowed to travel from Friday, Feb 14 until Monday, Feb 17, or you will "face consequences."

This is terrifying for several reasons, but primarily because Isaiah was supposed to come back to Cali on Friday (the last day of our project), and we were supposed to fly to Cartagena on Sunday (few days on the beach for some R&R). Additionally, we are in a more vulnerable position in this rural farming valley, where dissident groups are highly active in the mountains. This is my first close-encounter experience with a terrorist threat, and I'm learning a lot. The problem with terrorist threats (well, one of the problems outside of the obvious) is that they aren't specific, which helps fan the fear. You don't know what's going to happen if you "break their rules" and you don't know how seriously to take the threat.

So I do some research. I had mentioned in another post that Colombia had signed a peace agreement with the other guerilla group, the FARC, in 2016. Apparently, there hasn't a big, public threat since then... definitely concerning. Additionally, last January, the ELN planted an explosive in Bogota that killed 20 people and injured many more... even more concerning. All of these things are rattling around in my head as the head of our project tells us that we shouldn't take drastic measures, this is something that happens in Colombia and we will probably be fine. Probably.

Now, I'm willing to take certain risks. Sure, I'll go to a region in Colombia that has conflict in the area as long as it's relatively safe. Ok, I'll go up the mountains where there IS conflict, but only halfway up. Yes, I'll do sessions with the former terrorist guerilla group. But I think I'm being prudent when I say that I don't think I want to ride out this weekend's terrorist shutdown when our project will already be finished. Sure, the beach would be nice, but my interest in safety trumps that.

Here's the catch: the org that hosted us on this project won't get us a ticket back to the US unless the embassy declares an emergency. You would think that this would certainly qualify, but apparently not. And when I call the embassy yesterday evening, they are closed! Come on.

I get very agitated when I feel trapped in any circumstance: whether it's a family reunion, a job, or a country... so I always like to have alternatives. What's my way out. My amazing father always buys me travel insurance when I go for long trips out of the country. While we knew I would be insured through our program, I decided to buy extra insurance for both me and Isaiah. This back-up plan has helped the situation immensely, because now they are the ones getting us out. Never underestimate the power of having an alternative to fall back on, because it can really help you in a pinch, and usually doesn't cost much (other than some time and effort).

While I'm still getting flak from the head of the program, apparently he thinks I'm some hysterical little woman, I'm quite relieved that we are leaving Friday morning. Sure, it would probably be fine to stay in the hotel for three days straight, but why take that risk? It's always helpful to remember your options, and it's rare that you're ever truly trapped in a situation... sometimes all the options are crappy, but some are better than others.

Onto my session with the two Indigenous associations... it was definitely a heavy one. Prior to the session, the consultant said that one of the biggest problems they have is abuse toward women. Well, damn... that's not the type of conflict I'm trained to deal with. It was a very hard situation to be presented with five minutes prior to arriving, as I try to mull over if there is anything I can do to help.

I went through the same exercise as usual to understand the problems from their perspective. A huge issue was a lack of respect in general... toward the association, members and women. The session ended with more of a group coaching session as I told them that not much could change unless they were willing to enforce a requirement of respect in the association. This meant that if people consistently didn't show up, interrupted, were violent, or didn't pay dues, why keep them around. This was a very sobering moment for everyone... they knew it, but haven't had the confidence to do it yet. They have a culture of acceptance and protection, even for those who are taking advantage/being selfish. It's a hard shift to protect the group from a couple of bad seeds, but I think I got them on the right track.

Generally, I ask people to vote for who they want as the moderator of the meetings. This is to help distribute the power, because often people hate the person who is in charge. For this session, I participated heavily to influence it so it was women who were moderators. I certainly didn't force the issue, but I did interject in the process often to get them to consider all options. While I wasn't able to address the abuse directly, I hope that empowering the women will help.

It was a big day, with only a couple more to go.

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