Friday, February 26, 2010

An Inspiration on Ice

I will mourn forever - do you hear me? - for you, alone, in Paradise. 
-The Monogram, by Greek Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis

The Winter Olympics may feel remote near the Equator, but the courage of Canadian figure-skater Joannie Rochette is making eyes tear in Bogota nonetheless. 24-year-old Rochette's mother suddenly passed away due to a massive heart attack two days before her daughter was due to compete in the Ladies Short Figure-Skating Program in the Vancouver Olympic Games. After a very emotional performance punctuated with remarkable poise and discipline, Joannie Rochette ranked in third place, which she managed to maintain following the completion of the Long Program tonight, hence earning herself an Olympic bronze medal.

Commentators have wondered how she has been able to walk back onto the ice after she lost the figure who, by her own admission, had been her biggest cheerleader and most enthusiastic supporter. Rochette returned to what she knew, what she loved, what she and her mother had been striving toward for years. I admire her determination, resilience and, most of all, her uninhibited display of emotion, fragility, pain, love and reminiscence. Joannie Rochette is a humbling, moving, and inspiring lesson in courage.

For viewers within the US, Joannie Rochette's Short Program is available here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Conscious Choice for Peace: Reconciliation

An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences. -Theodor Adorno
There are between 2.6 and 4.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Colombia, rendering the country’s record the second worst in the world behind Sudan. Trends of displacement suggest that individuals who flee from areas of combat gravitate towards major urban centers and, true to these patterns, there are neighborhoods in Bogota that predominantly house ex-combatants or victims of the war. It is entirely possible to live in Bogota and never have seen this face of the city; these are the very neighborhoods the travel books instruct tourists to avoid and these are the very streets that remind one that even in a capital of ostensible peace and stability, war can permeate all aspects of life.

Ciudad Bolivar is in the south part of Bogota and is home to 10% of the city’s population, organized in over 1,400 unofficial settlements. Living conditions in some barrios are abysmal, with one police station per 100,000 inhabitants and assaults being the leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 15 and 44 (compare that for a second to heart disease). While the appearance of the parts that receive government and NGO assistance does not differ markedly from similarly poor neighborhoods worldwide, there are days when a walk through other areas is nothing short of shocking. Women cook over burning trash, a dead body lies in the street, drug exchanges take place in broad daylight. High crime rates and a lack of basic goods may constitute part of the reality of Ciudad Bolivar, but community leaders have taken it upon themselves to patrol the streets, organize activity programs for youth, and care for the ill and elderly, thus setting an example of community-based development.

It is in this environment that Centers for Reconciliation have cropped up to serve former combatants and victims of conflict. One of the challenges for anyone who has been involved in this conflict is that there is not a clear sense that war existed and ended, followed by a justice process. Many would argue Colombia is a country in conflict, rather than a collection of post-conflict communities and there is validity to this argument, especially given the difficulty of defining the thresholds of what constitutes a ‘society in conflict’ with limited credible data on the severity and extent of the crimes. However, there are large numbers of individuals who either took part in or suffered as a result of the conflict who have consciously chosen peace and are living in harsh conditions among other displaced persons who have fled to Bogota in search of a better future.

It is those people, and specifically the female victims and former combatants, who form the beneficiaries of my project. Over the course of one year, 250 ex-combatants, 150 displaced victims of violence, 200 offspring of these groups and 150 community leaders will participate in the activities of the Centre for Reconciliation. My specific task is to design the activities, train staff and volunteers in carrying them out and oversee their rolling out in the three months I am here – a tall order that challenges me, overwhelms me, scares me and thrills me all at once. Before I leave, I also hope to set up a monitoring and evaluation system according to which we can gather data and truly assess the efficacy of different methods of outreach. At the halfway point of this fellowship placement, I have met representatives of all these groups and sought the advice and guidance of individuals in Colombian politics, media, development work and transitional justice in putting together activities that meet the following aims: 
• Facilitate the reconciliation of memories of the conflict in order to ensure the participants’ lasting commitment to peace;
• Empower participants with the skills necessary to reintegrate peacefully into new communities;
• Create a support network for ex-combatants and victims of the conflict.
A list of proposed activities can be found below. Every unit involves multiple aspects of dispute resolution theory, mediation, post-conflict psychology, and transitional justice. Suggestions of strategies to employ or other materials to integrate are most welcome.

Communication, Difficult Conversations and Principles of Conflict Resolution
Women Imagine Themselves in the Future: Life Wish Lists
Women in the Media, Politics and Public Sphere
Mentorship and Role Models
Human Rights, Women's Rights: Laws and Conventions
Women Narrate their Own Histories: Female Heroines in Literature and Art
Countering Violence against Women/Domestic Violence
Women Narrate their Own Histories: Representations of Women in Photos and Film
Women in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities
Friendships, peer pressure, understanding and practicing empathy
Listening group: Telling stories of the war
Gender challenges worldwide: Parallels and differences
[Continuing Community Project: Memory Reconciliation through Art]

One of the most exciting milestones so far has been the visit of a panel of international experts, U.N. affiliates and local government officials, all of whom were inquisitive about the ways in which ex-combatants have transitioned to peace and the strategies we employ to foster reintegration. El Tiempo, one of the biggest Colombian publications, covered the visit and some of the participants' stories in an article that can be found here: (bad but perhaps adequate Google Translation in English is here).  

In closing, an excerpt from an email to a dear, dear friend that sought to encapsulate how I feel surrounded by dire need alongside abundant inspiration every day:

Among these ex-combatants and victims of conflict, I feel humbled and dwarfed. I do not know what it is like to fire a gun... and to decide to lay this gun down consciously in favor of peace. Even though I do know what it is like to painfully lose someone you love, I have never had my life ripped apart by war. This is an exercise in empathy in its purest form and I learn more from these ex-combatants and victims of conflict than I ever learned in a classroom. 

May the lessons continue for all of us.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Perspective - and Happiness

But it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.
American Beauty, translating universally. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

To be on your own/with no direction home

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. -Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

This is a difficult time for me, and it is even more difficult to find the words to publicly describe why. It could be fellowship fatigue from the constant transitions, novelties, and paradoxes I confront daily. It could be exhaustion from the weight of the challenges of living and working in the environments I have been. It could be reminiscences, uncertainty about the future, or loneliness. The particular cause of my blues remains elusive and that is part of the reason why they have lingered for a week.

This is a journey that has shaken me to the core. Remembering Kavafis' Ithaca, one of my favorite poems, I realize that it is this burning desire to be moved that set me on the road in the first place. I am grateful for all the ways in which my experiences since June have made me angry, delighted, surprised, afraid, sad and hopeful - and I am aggressively looking forward to continuing to be moved by the world because that is a sensation I cannot forsake after having experienced it.

A perhaps anticipated consequence of  the constant realignments of my universe is that I am now feeling less certain of my choices for the future than I did before. My priorities have changed, new options have presented themselves, old ones have become less attractive and I seem to lack the clarity of mind with which to assemble these pieces together (the eternal 'defamiliarization of the familiar' and disorientation of which Faust spoke, and which I love to revisit). I am, hence, a bundle of emotions -- a foreign state in itself. I still have nothing but faith that the dust will settle and my thoughts will clear up, but until then, I will continue to look for the words to describe what is going on inside my head, will continue to look for perspective, and will continue to attempt to reach out rather than shrilly reasserting "I am fine!" to myself until I believe it.

All of life is a foreign country. - Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

History and Politics of the Conflict in Colombia

This is a difficult country in which to openly discuss the intricate conflict as a worker in the fields of humanitarian assistance, transitional justice or post-conflict development. However, with a constitutional court decision pending on the possibility of Alvaro Uribe running for a third presidential term and with President Obama recently discussing American policies towards Colombia, the country has been receiving increasing media attention. Below are some links that provide a brief history of the conflict and the policy issues confronting Colombia today.

  1. Slate coverage of Plan Colombia and American aid to stop the drug trade:
  2. Council on Foreign Relations background paper on Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries and splinter groups: 
  3. Global Security information sheet on FARC: 
  4. International Crisis Group recent conflict history: 
  5. Christian Science Monitor on new paramilitary groups:

And some better news - Colombian coffee voted the best in the world. Too bad most of it gets exported?