Emergency Kits and Other Forms of Self-Protection

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What would you pack in your emergency kit in case of a hurricane, earthquake or other unexpected disaster?  What do you need to survive?

Pasta, tins of tuna, bottled water, a phone charger, batteries, contact information, rope, pocket knife, emergency money. These items were only some of the things we mentioned at a recent MCC retreat in Cail. 

As we discussed possible scenarios, someone brought up the possibilities of paros. Armed or nonviolent, these strikes and shutdowns often determine that we stay indoors. Available food dwindles as no transportation can reach our cities and communities.

IMG_0424At one moment during the conversation, Giovanni, a farmer from Boyaca, leaned over to tell me his experiences, not as someone trapped at home, but as the person on strike. “It was just like that during the agricultural strike. We were out on the highway, rolling boulders and placing them across the road, so that no trucks could get through to Bogota and so that the government would know we were serious about our demands for change. It’s true. People should all be keeping extra food in their houses.”

IMG_0567.jpgBack at work the next day, Justapaz held a security meeting. The Colombian Ministry of Health is implementing new labour requirements and worker compensation policies. A Labour Risk Administration (ARL) employee, Paula, is present to inform us of all of documentation that must now take place to ensure safe working conditions. For instance, Justapaz must register all work trips before they take place. Paula tells us that any change itinerary during a trip must be reported immediately to the ARL so that Justapaz remains eligible to receive compensation if an accident should occur during the trip.

A number of people around the table raise their hands. “What if we are in areas without any cell signal? What if there is no electricity to charge our phones? What if the normal conditions in many of the areas where we travel mean we often have to change our plans and can’t communicate?”

Paula seems unsure about how to respond. Finally, she asks if the Colombian army is present in these areas. Couldn’t we simply approach the state public forces and ask for their assistance?

A wave of angry laughter greets her comment.

Not so gently, someone responds that the public forces are either not present or represent significant security threats in the parts of the country where Justapaz works. 

To illustrate the point, one of the Justapaz lawyers shares the story of her participation during recent humanitarian investigation and observation trip to Tumaco. “In fact,” she states, “the public forces, in this case the police, were directly shooting at me. It was the state that created a security incident. I was almost killed. How do I report that?”

“I am the most unsafe in my work when I go to military bases to advocate around themes of conscientious objection.” Another member of the team chimes in. “Should I be making a special report around those visits?”

The theme is left unresolved as we move onto the next issue. Who is responsible for the safety of participants invited to Justapaz meetings and workshops, especially when they take place outside of the city? Paula suggests that each invitee must fill out their own safety plan, including their own employer provided health care insurer and itinerary, before the start of each event.

Her proposal is once again met with objections. Many community members cannot read and write. The vast majority don’t have a health plan. There are no safe and regulated forms of transportation in many areas. Instead of preparing for an eventual emergency, many people live in a constant state of emergency.

IMG_0585As the meeting continues, I think about Giovanni and the paro agrario of 2013. What does it mean to be safe? For Giovanni, and countless other men and women, nonviolently demanding state attention was an attempt to guarantee the safety of their families and communities: fair agricultural policies would provide better opportunities and an alternative to migrating to the city. Despite the fact that the riot police at one point opened fire on the strikers, killing and wounding several, the campesinos saw protesting as the only option left in their emergency kit. What happens when the best way to seek safety in the end is not to safe at all?

These anecdotes reveals a deeper problem of state legitimacy. What we determine to be important in our emergency kits also reveals what we fear. In a whatsapp conversation in the Cali airport waiting to get back to Bogota, my friend Elizabeth live texted me a panel about Colombia at an anthropology conference in Chicago. During the question period, there is a discussion about how to talk about the lack of state presence that still continues in much of the areas of the country. Is is state abandonment or state refusal? Who matters, and who decides?

IMG_0510 “Peace means generating spaces of legitimacy between the national and the territorial and between the territories and the territorial actors, that allow us to re-encounter each other, that allow for trust building, and that bring together local authorities, national authorities, the international community, and the diverse living forces in every territory…. Peace is not simply a signed accord. Peace means constructing state legitimacy from the territories. This doesn’t mean taking the state to the territory, but that the state, as a legitimate entity, emerges from the territory.” Borja Paladini, director of the  Kroc’s Institute Barometer Initiative in Colombia, shared on a recent episode of Sintonizate con la Paz.

The best hope for peace in Colombia, and for legitimate human security, requires not only listening to Giovanni and the communities Justapaz accompanies, but actually recognizing their knowledge and authority as peacebuilding actors who are already transforming the areas where they live. The implementation of measures for political participation, for protection, and for active dialogue are tools for statebuilding that start from the ground up. Only  then can we move out of a constant state of emergency into something new. And safe.


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