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Field notes from Colombia: Courage

I routinely inhabit the space between courage and paralyzing fear. It is in conversations with other professionals who work in conflict zones, tinged with bravado and a veneer of fearlessness, that I realize just how extensive my own list of fears is. Between July 2009 and July 2010, I boarded 43 flights in and out of conflict-affected areas, rendering my carbon footprint equivalent to the size of an elephant’s paw (if not a whole elephant). I stared at the wing to assess the stability of each and every one of those flights almost the entire time, as though staring at the wing could prevent pilot error or the twists of fate that result in plane crashes. More than once, I have considered that I have too many fears, that I scare too easily and too often, to remain in my chosen line of work.


You are going to die.” That is the face of a threat: chillingly concise. Sometimes it arrives via text message and sometimes it is on a flyer slipped under your door. Sometimes it is accompanied by extra breaths on a phone call, signaling you have company, and sometimes by footsteps tracing each of your own. This is a Colombia that unfolds in parallel to others, right alongside the Colombias of salsa dancing and almond croissants. Many of my friends are bewildered to hear me talk about it, remarking that it sounds like an action movie; at the same time, for many of my colleagues, this is a professional reality.

What does this reality consist of? This info-graphic by Semana reveals a map of the reported deaths of human rights defenders in the first half of 2013. An average of 6.1 human rights defenders were killed each month, with the murders spanning almost every region of Colombia. That figure does not include threats, intimidation, surveillance, or other instances of non-lethal violence that human rights defenders may encounter by virtue of the work they do in this country. A December 2011 report by the International Service for Human Rights lists attacks against the physical integrity of human rights defenders, illegal surveillance, intelligence activities, raids of NGO premises and theft of information, and arbitrary arrest and detention. The same report also lists steps the government has been taking to protect human rights defenders and increase government-NGO cooperation. A hopeful eye may remark that the situation may have changed for the better since December 2011. Yet, on August 6, 2013, the national watchdog group Somos Defensores (We are Defenders) reported that the first half of 2013 was the most violent six-month period on record for humanitarian workers in Colombia. This assessment is based on reported incidents and, given the underreporting of these events due to fear of reprisals or other reasons, it is possible the actual figures are different in ways we cannot quite estimate.

There is chilling irony to the threats, as human rights defenders are often threatened with the same crime  whose prevalence motivates their activism. It is not uncommon for support groups for the families of those who have been forcibly disappeared to be threatened with the possibility of the enforced disappearance of one of the leaders or spokespersons. As one of the human rights defenders I recently interviewed discussed, the threats can also be deeply gendered: women are often threatened with sexual violence or with hints that their children or family may be harmed, whereas threats against men often suggest intended homicide. The gender breakdown of activist groups is underexamined and rapidly changing, as women often form a significant part of these groups and are increasingly holding leadership positions within them. In part, this is because the immediate victims of conflict-related crimes, such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, are often men, with surviving women directing the search process for their missing family members and navigating the transitional justice labyrinth.

Earlier this year, my favorite professor in graduate school assigned a book in her syllabus titled Killing Civilians. In addition to the charming title, the book cover depicted a homicide. While it was not the kind of book one wanted to fall asleep to reading, only to find her loved one wake up against the chilling book cover, Hugo Slim’s Killing Civilians taught me the importance of knowing exactly how violence is directed and carried out in situations of armed conflict. As the subtitle suggests, the book discusses “method, madness, and morality in war.” The professor who assigned it frequently repeats that we need to read the testimony. We need to know what happens when somebody is being tortured or disappeared or when their office is raided, painful and hair-raising as these accounts may be. In a sense, reading the testimony is a way of bearing witness; it infuses life into statistics and charts. It makes it harder to look away.


The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life in Colombia affect one’s experiences of fear, risk, and danger. Being a foreign, Western-educated woman who does not permanently live in Colombia, I experience different types and layers of protection and risk — with more of the former than the latter — than my Colombian colleagues. In many ways, this is not my story, but I feel a responsibility to tell it, out of recognition that this Colombia, too, exists, alongside the rest of them. When I ask my colleagues whether they are afraid, a pattern emerges in the responses: Being a human rights worker in this country — and in most others, I would posit — is not ‘just’ a job. It is a lifestyle choice, a life choice. The implications of choosing this path here are so pervasive and affect so many aspects of one’s daily life that one is constantly called to re-examine and reaffirm whether this path is, indeed, for her. When I ask my colleagues how they cope with fear, most present it as almost a non-choice: They cite focusing on the work, the need for it, the service component that invites all else to fade into the distance.

In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, “fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions.” Unlike most of my colleagues, I am laden with fears. If there is a way to be innately brave, I do not possess that trait. Yet, it is in the moments of endeavor that Aung San Suu Kyi describes, it is in the instances in which I feel most engrossed in, dedicated to, and present in my work, that I feel less afraid.


And then the fear crawls in at night, keeping me awake. Or it catches me at unlikely moments. Say, for instance, when a plane is taxiing on the runway or when I’m in a crowded mall. It manifests in different ways, all of which share a common expectation: I anticipate something awful happening. Therein lies the irony of fear and courage in my life: I bear witness to, document, and respond to acts of mass violence and yet, I am most afraid in moments of seemingly blissful peace.

This summer I encountered another level of worry, relating to fear for those who entrusted me with their stories. Protecting the privacy, security, and confidentiality of those who agreed to be interviewed as part of my investigation is my responsibility as a researcher — a responsibility rendered difficult in a setting in which the cultivation of fear is a currency. Protection, in this context, can be a patronizing concept. After all, those participating in my research presumably have agency over their lives and reaffirmed their desire to voluntarily share their stories after a detailed-to-the-point-of-bureaucratic explanation of informed consent, the interview process, and possible risks. This begs the question: If they are not afraid, why am I? Is there a way to maintain vulnerability and care without being paralyzed by the fear that rushes in to fill all vacuums? Is there a way to be a professional in this field while being dignifiedly afraid? Is there dignity to fear?

Optimism, fueled by a constant search for beauty and hope, is an antidote to fear for me. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: “We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can’t see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing.”

I draw hope from that statement, and from the knowledge that many humbling individuals are pushing to move mountains in this country. At the same time, this cannot be another story that ends tidily on a hopeful note. If it did, it would be a disservice to those who have lost something while pushing to move mountains: their sense of security, their dignity, their life.

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