The last couple of weeks have been so full of various wonderful, memorable, and challenging experiences. After the first week of work, everyone in Colombia had a week off for Easter Holy Week (Semana Santa). It felt strange to have just started working and getting oriented to the office here, only to then have week off; however, I certainly made the best of the free time! I started by exploring some little pueblos in the countryside near Medellín with the family I was staying with. We went to their finca in a high mountain area called Santa Elena, as well as to the fincas of two of their friends who invited us to celebrate the holiday. These other areas were called San Vicente, San Antonio, and Retiro. All were strikingly lush and beautiful. Most of these regions were about 2000 ft higher than Medellín (5000 ft) and were very cool and refreshing mountain climates.
After exploring the countryside for a few days, I wanted to spend some time in the city getting to know different neighbourhoods. Ever since first hearing about the metrocable and outdoor escalator systems in the slums of Medellín, I have wanted to explore these areas. Medellín was recently voted the most innovative city in the world, which was in large part because of these transit systems to the poorest barrios of the city. They were designed to join these barrios to the main metro line, enabling residents to have much easier access to important resources, job opportunities, etc. in the city centre. Before the metro cable and escalators, most people in these barrios had a 4-5 hour walk every time they had to make their way back home from the centre; for some people twice a day. The barrios in Medellín are built up into the steep mountainsides of the valley in which the city sits. Many parts of these barrios are so steep that no cars or buses can access them. So I took the metrocable up to Comuna #1, a barrio called Santo Domingo. It’s one of the most infamous barrios, along with the likes of Comuna #13 and Comuna #8, for violence and gang activity. The construction of the metrocables and escalators was accompanied by the construction of libraries, community centres and parks with the goal of encouraging people to reclaim their communities from the violence and gang activity and providing alternative spaces and activities for children and youth. From these parks, especially that of Santo Domingo, there are incredible views onto the valley and the city below.
I was also struck by one mural project that had been done by children in Santo Domingo in cooperation with the community centre. It paid homage to all the victims of violence in their community. There were parts of the mural dedicated to sexual assault, gun violence, landmines, and more.
Though these innovations are generally positively received, there are many Medellín residents who doubt the real impact these projects have had on violence in the barrios. One resident of Comuna 13 stated, “The flashy new projects have distracted people’s attention from lingering issues, like high crime, and the government is sweeping those problems under the rug”.
Needless to say, the week off was full of adventures, discoveries, beautiful sights, and educational experiences. Getting into the second week of work, I was looking forward to an opportunity to accompany Laura, the victim assistance coordinator, on some visits with a recent landmine survivor, as well as attending a convention for the International Day for Mine Awareness. When Laura and I arrived at the hospital, we met with the landmine survivor who had his accident roughly two months earlier. He is a young man, about mid-30s, from a heavily mined rural area of Antioquia near a coastal town called Turbo. When he had his accident, it was his first day of work on a new job in the forestry industry. He had to walk through a field where he stepped on a mine. He lost his left foot immediately and had shrapnel lodged into his left leg, throughout his right leg, in his arms and hands. Both his eardrums ruptured from the explosion, and the only reason he didn’t lose his eyesight was because he thought quickly and shielded his eyes with his forearm, now covered in spotted scars from shrapnel.
On this particular visit, he was being assessed for a new compression sock and for the beginning stages of getting a prosthetic leg. He had thought it would take at least 3 months to get a prosthetic, but Laura informed him that he should be able to get it within a few weeks. He had an incredibly positive disposition the whole time, making jokes, laughing and smiling; but when he realized that he would be getting a prosthetic so soon, the relief at the prospect of regaining a major part of independence was so clearly evident in his reaction. While he was in his appointment, I talked with his sister about the severe phantom limb pain that he has been experiencing. She hadn’t heard of the mirror therapy treatment, so I explained it and encouraged her to talk to his physical therapist about it. His sister, in her early 30s, has been staying with him to take care of him since the day of his accident. This is a very typical scenario, but something that weighs heavily on the economic capacity and provision of care in the family. He and his sister have 3 and 4 children respectively, as well as spouses, other siblings and their parents back in their home community.
On the other hand, I also had the opportunity to meet another survivor, whose experience is a stark contrast to that of the first survivor I met. This second gentleman had also had his accident only a few months ago, and lost his eyesight and both hands in the explosion, as well as damage to his hearing. What Laura and I were shocked to see was that he was navigating the walls of the hospital and the process of registration and all completely on his own. He later told us that when he and his father arrived in Medellín from the north after his accident, they were staying with his aunt. However, after a week, his father abandoned him and his aunt claimed to be too busy to accompany him to his appointments. I was completely struck by this young man, who having recently experienced such trauma and only just learning to navigate the world without his sight and hands, was having to do so without any support from his family or otherwise. Laura and I immediately gave him the information of our office and offered to accompany him in any way that could be of assistance. In the same area of the hospital, we met another young man who had lost his eyesight and hearing to a stray bullet that went through his temples when he was walking in the Comuna where he lives. Meeting all three of these young men so horrifically impacted by the conflict really hit me hard. I left feeling incredibly grateful to have met them and to be able to work with Laura to assist them in ways that I quickly realized are very important for survivors.
As for April 4th, the International Day for Mine Awareness, I went with colleagues from the office to a government-led convention to commemorate the day and pay respect to landmine victims. There were guest speakers from organizations working on the landmine issue, such as PAICMA, JICA, and UNDP, as well as the Vice President of Colombia. We also heard from a number of victims on their experiences and what they ask of the government and the international community for victims of landmines in Colombia. It was an interesting experience and a great opportunity to meet and talk with victims and other actors working on the issue.
On a final work-related note, over the past few weeks it was proving to be quite a challenge cementing a work plan and getting a solid idea of what projects I can get to work on here (other than the small tasks I had so far been given). On Monday, however, I got a visit from the director of CCCM, Alvaro, and had a really good, productive discussion with him, as well as other coordinators from the office. We came up with what I think looks like a really solid plan. I have 5 principle focal points: 1. I will be working on monitoring and evaluation to do with the monthly reports that each regional office submits to CCCM with the M&E coordinator, Juan Pablo; 2. I will continue working with Laura in victim assistance; accompanying victims and assessing how we can improve outreach and support; 3. I will be supporting the regional project coordinator, José, who focuses on mine risk education and is currently working on a project in partnership with UNDP; 4. I will be researching for and preparing funding proposals as well as doing translations in the office; 5. I will be creating and maintaining a photographic database of all the victims we work with, as well as any major events, meetings, projects, etc. that happen while I am here.
In other news, I have also been thoroughly enjoying my discoveries of street food. The most interesting of these exploits was an adventurous sampling of cow’s tongue…not to be repeated. Favourites so far are Guarapo, which is a sugar cane drink, patacones, which are like fried, crispy delicious plantain pancakes, and empanadas of all kinds. Solteritas are also a new favourite, which are a delicious dessert that I wouldn’t know how to begin explaining, so click on the name there for a photo!
That’s all for now, folks! Thanks for reading and keeping up with my adventure!