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That’s Just the Kind of Day it is

November 29, 2011

This post may seem a little chaotic or disjointed but that’s just the kind of day it is in the world.

I woke up this morning to find that even after a course of antibiotics and several days of house arrest, I still have my sinus infection. What does this have to do with the rest of the world? Well my doctor informed me that it was no doubt caused by the extreme pollution here in Bogota and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one in the world suffering health problems caused by pollution today. And at the same time, I see this morning that there seems to be no progress, or seemingly no longer even any interest in coming to any kind of new binding climate agreement at the Durban conference on climate change happening this week (Blame Canada).

And at the same time as people seem to be unwilling to deal with the future, the past seems to be repeating itself; I open the BBC to find the breaking news that Iranian students have stormed the UK Embassy in Tehran and caused extensive damage. For the younger readers out there, this is how the famous hostage-holding of U.S. diplomatic staff began in 1979, violent student protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held staff hostage for 444 days (Tehran Hostage Crisis).  (This later became one of the most famous international law cases of all time when the International Court of Justice found Iran responsible for its inaction, culminating in its failure to protect the diplomatic staff  (Case Concerning United States Consular and Diplomatic Staff in Tehran) There were actually several failed military rescue missions before diplomacy finally won out and an Accord (the Algiers Accord ) was struck in which Iran agreed to release the hostages.  And this is the somewhat coincidental segway that leads us to what I really wanted to talk about on this crazy day, another failed rescue mission, although a more recent one.

History repeats itself here in Colombia this week as well.

This past weekend, 4 hostages were killed when they were shot point-blank by FARC guerrillas during a rescue attempt by the Colombian military.  This is not the first time hostages have been killed during failed rescue attempts, and in fact it is one of the most common scenarios in which hostages die in captivity in Colombia.

One of the most tragic aspects of this story is that the hostages had actually been held for somewhere between 12-14 years.  Death is death. But imagine being held for 14 years, holding out hope every day that you would be released.  Then in the final moments, hearing the military approaching, thinking you are finally free, and in a split second it’s all over.

Those who have lived in a big city know the frustrations of traffic at rush hour, and this morning was rush hour like I have never seen it in Bogota.  Every street was chalk full of stalled traffic.  Even when I arrived in the old town, all of the narrow cobblestone streets had traffic lined up, some had even turned off their motorbikes and cars to wait.  When I arrived in the office,  one of my colleagues told me the reason for the traffic is that today is the day they bury the dead hostages.

It’s impossible to work. The sounds of honking, yelling, and frustration have risen up and entered our office through the second floor window. It is eerie in here today.  Almost the entire organization is out of town at a meeting and the normally lively office is almost completely empty.  On top of that, when I walked down the hallway one of the few colleagues here with me was listening to the Cranberries’ “Zombie”.

Bogota is in mourning. Speaking with friends this weekend, one friend explained how dear the FARC hostages are to Colombians’ hearts and how it is difficult to carry on as normal.  In a country where there are radio programmes dedicated to the hostages and loved ones call in to “talk” to their children, parents, and spouses, in hopes that they might actually  be listening from somewhere deep in the jungle, the news of hostages killed at the hands of their captors hits very close to home.

If there is anyone who might just get through to some of the guerrillas it is a brave 13 yr-old boy named Johan Martinez.  He is the son of one of the killed hostages.  Johan publicly scolded the FARC and told them they had just killed the dream he had of one day meeting the father he had never met.

One bright light in this dark day in Colombia is that in the middle of the commotion created by the rescue attempt, one of the hostages was able to escape into the jungle, and he has now been reunited with his family here in Bogota.

Although it poured rain here all morning, at lunchtime the sun started to peak out. I decided to venture out.

As in any big city, you see a lot of interesting happenings here in Bogota.  Take right now for example, I was just sitting on the patio of Juan Valdez having a coffee.  Juan Valdez is not a sketchy place, it is the swankiest coffee chain in Colombia. Colombia’s answer to Starbucks.  Sitting at the table beside me was a lady talking to herself, loudly. And every few minutes she would scream obscenities at the other customers.  Security tried to get her to leave but she just kept telling them call the police, I want you to call the police. In the end the security guard went about his business and she returned to hers.  Now before my experience working with victims of the armed conflict, I may have written her off as “crazy” but I’ve learned you just never know someone’s story.  She made me think of this lady who took the microphone at our consultation in Cali, she told us how she had not received any medical treatment (pyschological or physical) from the hospital, even when she told them she was a victim of the armed conflict and it was their duty to give her attention.  She said they wrote her off as “crazy” and sent her on her way.  She then said to us, I have had most of my family killed by the guerrillas. They killed my husband. They killed 4 of my children. They killed 4 of my siblings. They killed my uncle. You would be “crazy” too.  So when I see this woman at the table beside me, screaming obscenities I can’t help but wonder what her story is.

I then promptly came back to the office, fell UP the stairs and spilled the remainder of my coffee all over myself.

I guess that’s just the kind of day it is.


Soccer Will Do That To You

November 15, 2011

Some torrential rain, a traffic jam, and a shared love of  soccer is all it took to make me fall back in love… with Colombia.

The past couple of weeks I’ve been in what I’ll call a “cultural  funk”. For those of you who have done a couple tours of field work, studying or
working abroad you know what I’m talking about.

First you have a honeymoon period for about 3 weeks where you view your  adopted country with gooey eyes, like a new lover, it can do nothing  wrong.  Then slowly something starts  creeping in and oh, it’s the memory of your last love, your home country, and homesickness  sets in (Stage 2). This period usually lasts about a week or so and during this time  it’s not like you have lost any love for your adopted country; it’s just that  all you can think about is the hole in your heart for everything that is “home”.  You muddle along with no real purpose until  you find your way into the next stage (Stage 3) , crankiness.

This is the most dangerous of stages, when all of the things you first found adorable about your adopted country and its people,  now drive you crazy. You go back to seeing everything from your own cultural  perspective and forget everything you’ve learned about being open to other  cultures.  Everything just drives you crazy and you want to sit at home and watch TV and not talk to anyone. So this is where I’ve
been the past couple weeks.

Whenever I ask a question to a colleague here, they give me an impish look and find every way imaginable to avoid giving an answer. I used
to find this charming, but this week, oh.. this week I wanted to rip my hair out. Just give me some information! Just tell me what time the meetings start,  or what I have to do there, or what hotel they are in, or even what CITY they are in (true story from this week).  The
fact that everyone is hours late for everything  hadn’t bothered me until now, but this week, sitting in my hotel room  ready to go, not being able to check out the towns I was in, but not being able  to get to the meetings on my own either, all I wanted was one day where I could
control my own schedule.  At lunchtime, I  just wanted to know why the guy beside me got 2 potatoes and an avocado with
his lunch while I had one measly potato and no avocado. The nonsense of it all was once  intriguing, but now I just wanted some good old North American reasonableness.  And my visit to the southern city of Cali this weekend, that’s  another post all on its own but from the Lonely Planet’s “Cali is not an  immediately likeable city” to rave reviews I received from friends I wasn’t sure  what to think. Now if I had of been in Stage 1 (let’s call that “country lust”), I  probably would have thought the run-down, desolateness of the place was  charming but instead all I could see were the bars on all the windows and  doorways and at the risk of sounding like Jeff Foxworthy’s “If X….You might be  a redneck”, all I could think of was my friends’ rave reviews of the city as  justifications of why it really isn’t SO awful and kept saying to myself, “If your  city is so dangerous you need bars across the doorways of open stores…it might be a craphole”  (I mean the stores are open but you can’t go in,  you need to tell the storekeeper on the other side of the bars what you want).  Now I realize this is a bit harsh and culturally insensitive, but this is what  happens in Stage 3. No one can do anything right, and everything about your  home country is perfect. It’s a dangerous time but if you hang in there, it’s  well worth it and you’ll come out much better on the other end, maybe you’ll  never find that original lust you once had but you’ll find your way to a deeper,  long-lasting love for your country, and this is where the magic really starts…

So finally this afternoon, I started to emerge from Stage 3 into  the comfort of a long-term relationship; I left work a bit early because it was
one of these particularly rainy days in Bogota.  The weather in Bogota is quite the trickster  and although I should know better by now, sometimes I still fall for its tricks.  I will wake up to a beautiful,  sun-filled, clear-sky and leave the house without a raincoat, knowing full well  it will pour rain later that day. But sometimes I just can’t do it, I just can’t  head out in rain gear on a beautiful day. I say to myself, “it just can’t be  possible that this beautiful day will end with gray skies and a downpour” but  sure enough, as unbelievable as it is, later that day I find myself stuck
downtown in the pouring rain.

On these days,  about the time our roof starts leaking and it’s actually raining in our office,  is about the time I decide to head out and figure out how to get home. The  streets in the old town quickly become flooded, traffic grinds to a halt, and transport
is next to impossible to find.  So  although I was tricked by the weather again today at least I knew enough to  head out before rush hour.  I quickly
found a cab and we made our way to join the rest of the cars sitting on the main  avenue, the Septima.  As unimaginable as
it is, that’s when the magic started.  We  only moved about 2 blocks in 20 minutes, we were stuck in the middle of intersections with  traffic trying to go both directions, and horns were honking all around us…so  what brought the magic to this scenario?


We were smack in the middle of  a game between Colombia and Argentina and so although we couldn’t move, we  could listen to the lively play-by-play on national radio, as were the  occupants of all of the cars around us.  We chit-chatted about the plays and then, all of the sudden  GOOOOOLLLLLLL and the sound was deafening….every vehicle on the Avenue erupted  in drawn-out honking and everyone pumping their arms in their respective cars, the  radio station cut from announcing to high-energy salsa and my driver Aridelfo  and I couldn’t stop laughing….and that moment was all it took to bring me back  to my love affair, with Colombia.

Now I’m back home, safe from the torrential downpour and am settling  in for a cross-cultural but cozy night at home, I just finished watching the
rest of the game and sadly, Argentina won 2-1, next I’m onto my North American comfort, an episode of the Kardashians. Cozy in my new
Colombian-Canadian uniform; I’ve adopted 3 pieces of jewelry from the Embera  women that I now wear everyday, along with a truckload of LuluLemon, and an old  red shirt my mom found somewhere that says “Canadian Chicks Rule”.

I think Colombia and I have something really  special.

Magic Realism or Miami Vice? Experiences with the Duty to Consult in Colombia: Part One

November 2, 2011

Consultas Previas

My first days at ONIC were both intimidating and impressive.  Within an hour of arriving at my placement I was in a meeting with about 50 people having to introduce myself and explain what I was doing in Spanish each time another VIP joined the meeting.  This was somewhat daunting given that I had only been there for an hour and wasn’t really sure what I was actually going to do! As daunting as it was, I was immediately made to feel part of the team and by lunchtime of my first day, I felt right at home. This meeting on my first day was extraordinary. To anyone else it probably seemed like any old meeting but to me, having just finished by masters in international law, it was a rapid-fire review of almost all of my courses.  I had never been in a non-academic setting where topics of International Humanitarian law, Human Rights law, Aboriginal Law, and general International law were all discussed in one meeting.  The most impressive thing was that everyone seemed to be familiar with these topics, non-international lawyers and even non-lawyers all seemed to have at least a basic knowledge of these subjects.  On this first day of work I understood that this country would be the perfect practical experience to put to test everything I had learned during my masters.

As I mentioned in my post “What am I actually doing here anyway?”, I arrived at ONIC at an extremely exciting and busy time for the organization as they were in the final preparations before teams would be sent out across the country to consult indigenous groups on a new decree, El Decreto Ley , which has the force of law and flows from the Ley de Victimas.  The Ley de Victimas is a law that provides compensation for victims of the armed conflict in Colombia (La Ley de Victimas) . El Decreto flows from Article 205 of that law and relates to specific groups, including indigenous groups, who are victims by the armed conflict. Once in force, it will provide various forms of reparations (compensation, apologies, restitution  of land, etc.) to these victims.  Our job was to learn the Decreto and then travel around to different indigenous groups to present the law, explain how it worked, how they could seek compensation under the law, etc. and then participate in discussions with them regarding their opinions, whether it actually addresses their needs, any proposals for changes, etc.

I was thrown into the deep end right away and the learning curve was extremely high.  Not only had I not worked in Spanish in a very long time but I had no idea of the context of this law and was missing some major pieces, such as a proper understanding of the previous laws on which it was based. But I had no time to do background research, I had to go with what I knew and try to keep up.  I also quickly learned that Colombians have many idiomatic expressions and I often struggled to understand, an experience I had not had in other Spanish-speaking countries.  As I mentioned in my last post, my job was “relatora” meaning I had to record all of the discussions during the meetings.  One element that made this job even more difficult was the Colombian love of cellphones.  Now I’ve been in many countries where people can’t get enough of their cellphones but I had never seen this before; people answer there cellphones and talk on them all day during meetings (even the speakers themselves!) and talk on them in front of their mouths like a walkie-talkie, sometimes cupping their hand over their mouths, like cellphone-
wielding Darth Vaders. So, imagine me in the middle of two  cellphone-talkers, trying to take notes of the rapid-fire, expression-filled Spanish presentation on a law that everyone else was already familiar with. Further, these meetings lasted all day and into the evening for this first two weeks…needless to say the learning curve was high.  I was thrilled to be part of this process but exhausted!

Any free moment I could find was spent studying and reading through this 65-page Decreto  and anything I could find about it on the internet (difficult since the draft had only been approved the week before and was not published) and pestering  everyone who would listen with questions.

I learned that I would be on the consultation team traveling to Cucuta in Norte de Santander, in the north-east of the country on the border
with Venezuela (one of the regions that is still involved in an ongoing armed conflict) and to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast.  In Cucuta we would do consultations with the Bari and U’Wa peoples and in Santa Marta with the Chimila and Mokana peoples.

The Saturday before we were to begin the consultations the head of ONIC called an emergency meeting of all staff to review the procedure
for the coming weeks.  In that meeting he talked about the importance of safety and the instability of some of the regions we were going to. One comment that stuck with me was “No one is to walk alone in Cucuta.” Now, to hear safety warnings from people at home or Foreign Affairs is one thing but to be here and have your boss, an experienced, tough indigenous leader, telling us not to walk alone, was a whole other story, and again reminded me to not forget where I was.


We were to fly out on a Sunday night from Bogota to Cucuta on Avianca, Colombia’s national airline. I was beyond excited and arrived at the airport long before anyone else.  I had never taken an internal flight in Colombia and thought it sounded so exotic.  Further, to be travelling as part of a government-organized work outing, I felt like I would only need another week or so and I might actually be Colombian!

I have to admit though, my over-active imagination was running wild with this; we were smack in the middle of national elections.  I was also in the middle of reading Even Silence has an End: My six years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, Ingrid Betancourt’s autobiographical memoir  chronicling her time spent as a hostage of the FARC (Reading this may seem like a bad idea but having been trained by both the Girl Guides of Canada and the school of Al Thomas to always “Be Prepared”, I thought better to read it and take any useful information I could find… just in case). In any case, those of you who know the story, know that she was also travelling with a government group (albeit she was running for president, perhaps a more enticing hostage than me) during an election period (historically an unstable period in Colombia), to a FARC controlled area. Their group was travelling in and out of a main centre by plane so it should have been safe. However, at the last minute, their plane out of the centre was ordered not to take them and they had to go by land, leading to their kidnapping.  Now of course there was no real likelihood of this happening but you see the parallels, election period, flying in and out of centre surrounded by area in armed conflict, etc. it was just too enticing for my imagination to stick with reason.  As such, I prepared my super first-aid kit, packed my headlamp, my emergency blanket, and rations in my briefcase and off I went on my first work trip in Colombia.

By the time we got on the plane I could barely contain my excitement and when the door to the plane opened and we were hit with the
tropical heat of Cucuta, I was in heaven. It didn’t last long. We piled into a taxi and L., the other woman in the group, crossed herself before we started out on our Colombian version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  As it was 11 p.m. the city seemed especially intimidating.  As we zoomed through dark and abandoned streets my boss’ words,  no one will walk alone in Cucuta, echoed in my head.  Finally, we arrived safely at the Hotel Casablanca, our home for the following days.

Consultations to Socialization: Cucuta

We entered the conference room the next morning to find more than 100 U’Wa and Bari people already there, waiting to begin. I thought to
myself, this is the first time I have ever been LATE for something in Colombia. Although the meeting was to start at 9 a.m. and it was only 8:50, they had obviously already been there for quite awhile.  I thought back to a piece of advice one of the indigenous persons at our office had given me before leaving Bogota; you work when the indigenous people want to work.

Being the naïve international law neophyte that I am, I set up my computer and prepared for things to go ahead as per the agenda…..oh so much
to learn.  The plan was that the first morning and most of the first afternoon would be spent on presentations by representatives of ONIC and the government on each part of the law. Later on the first day, that evening, and the following morning everyone would be broken into small groups for discussions, and finally, the last afternoon would be spent as a plenary session sharing all of the main points from the small groups, followed by everyone hugging and kissing and thanking everyone for their participation (okay not quite, but you get the point, everything was
going to run exactly as planned and everyone would be happy with the process and the law itself).

What actually happened was this…the government coordinator got up to present the agenda and she was immediately cut off by a
representative of the U’Wa people protesting against these consultations, he was then joined by representatives from the Bari…we had a problem.  The crux of the U’Wa position (supported by the Bari) was that they were in disagreement with this process being called a
“Consulta Previa” (official consultation under the Duty to Consult) for various reasons, most  obvious to them was the fact that it was not “Previa”- (“pre”) anything, this law and accompanying decree were already written (although the idea of this process is that the
decree in its current state is only a draft, to be finalized in considerations of the proposals made during the consultations. However given their history in similar matters the U’Wa had little faith that anything they suggested would end up in the final decree).  The specific complaints were all of the same misgivings I had in my head during the process but was too nervous as a foreigner-newbie to speak up.  They complained that they had only had a few days notice of the consultations (meaning both they had no time to prepare their opinions or learn the law, nor did everyone who would have liked to come have time to organize themselves to come), they had not been sent the law beforehand, they did not have access to computers to research it, they could not all read it/read it in Spanish, etc.  When I was studying this law I had the exact same thoughts; if it took me, a trained lawyer, 7 hours to read this law cover to cover, how were people with no university training, let alone legal training, expected to read and understand this law (that is, if they could find it to read)?  On the other side of the coin is the fact that this law had been reviewed by the national indigenous authorities already and they were to present it to their respective regions and representatives,  something that obviously did not go as smoothly as planned.

The U’Wa and Bari asked for an autonomous space to discuss whether to proceed with the consultations.  All of the government representatives were asked to leave the room. As a representative of ONIC, I was privileged to be able to stay in the autonomous space.  As it was a privileged discussion I won’t repeat it here but the basic thread of the common theme of the discussion was a mistrust of the government and any initiative proposed by them.

Discussions during the autonomous space, Cucuta

At one point during the autonomous discussions, the skies opened up, the lights began to flicker on and off, and huge clashes of thunder
could be heard.  Some of the Bari began to say it was the gods showing their distaste for the Consulta Previa.  Listening to the representatives was so refreshing, after a particularly frustrating year studying human rights law, hearing these people vigorously demanding respect for their rights (plus the added factor that they were wonderful orators, one of the Bari told me he had actually attended two semesters of law school and had hoped to become a lawyer), was a much-needed boost to my faith in human rights. One particularly clever tactic that I appreciated was that when it was time for the government representatives to return, one of the U’Wa started playing their traditional music on the sound system: nice touch.

The autonomous discussions lasted several hours.  ONIC then (on behalf of the 2 groups) presented the government with several proposals without which the groups had decided they would not proceed.  The main proposal being that the “consultations” would continue as a “socialization” (essentially an introduction) of the law, not as an official Consulta Previa.   There was a collective sigh of relief when the government representatives came back to say they would accept the proposal and we could carry on with the discussions as a “socialization”.

It was now 3.p.m. on Day 1, according to the agenda we were to have finished all of the presentations and be well into the small groups
sessions…however here we were…  at 3 p.m. real-time  and 9.a.m. on the agenda, we officially opened the talks with elders singing in the Bari language.  Lesson learned!

Bari Elders performing the harmonization of the meetings, Cucuta

Although I truly appreciated the gusto with which both the U’Wa and Bari fought for their right to Consultas Previas to be respected, and
there are admittedly both historical and political factors I am not aware of given my position as a foreigner, I couldn’t help but think their needs would be better met if they separated their reactions to the Consulta Previa and this law in particular.  I completely understand that to go ahead with a consultation would be to implicitly let the government get away with a less-than-perfect consultation but on the other
hand, after a full year of intensive study of IHL, I have never seen or heard of a domestic law that offers such protection or is so comprehensive with regards to IHL and the protection of victims of armed conflicts.  Of course it is not perfect and implementation of the law is a completely different story but I couldn’t help thinking that by refusing to allow the Consulta Previa  to go ahead they were potentially letting go of
a chance at having a say in a potentially extremely powerful tool. Sure there may be problems with implementation later but without the law in place, they would not even have a tool to seek reparation.  Although the principle is important, I was conflicted as to whether this
was the best approach to have their voices heard.  However, admittedly I do not understand the depth of their mistrust of their government.

The time spent with these people was amazing.  I had some great discussions with leaders of both the U’Wa and Bari. The Bari said that their village was a 3-day walk from Cucuta, the U’Wa a 2-day walk.  It was also interesting to see their opinions start to change during the 2 days,
people that had been enraged the first morning were now obviously coming around to the idea and realizing how important this law could be for them.  The sad thing was that by this time, we were running out of time to have real discussions about the content.

Government Presentations on el Decreto Ley, Cucuta

We were struggling to finish the most important parts of the agenda in time for everyone to leave that evening.  At about 6 p.m. a representative of the U’Wa came back into the room and took the microphone and opened with “As we all know, we are still in an ongoing armed conflict here in this region.” Immediately my imagination took off again, I was sure this was the opening statement to let us know an armed group was now going to take control of the room…but alas, once I left my internal-emergency-planning and started listening again he was explaining that we had to conclude the meeting now because the bus had arrived to take the U’Wa back where they needed to be and if they did not leave soon they would not be able  to cross the armed checkpoint, set up by the armed group that controlled the area, until the morning.  We also had a reason to quickly wrap up, albeit less scary, and had to rush off to catch our plane.

We made it on time and boarded the plane and I swear I heard my phone ringing but thought I must be dreaming, no one ever calls me here, but
then again, I heard a ringing.  I picked it up and to my surprise it was one of the U’Wa (who had asked me for my phone number in case they ever needed help but I was expecting more help on human rights law research or similar).  Their bus hadn’t made it to the check point in time and the armed group was refusing to let them through. Luckily I was with the other lawyers from ONIC who were able to organize for them to go back to the hotel in Cucuta for another night.  I have to say, that was the most exciting phone call I have ever received on my cell, and of course, was more fuel for my imagination.

My days in Cucuta were eye-opening, and a truly amazing experience for me.  I was very touched by both the Bari and the U’Wa and their passion for justice.

I also understand now why magic realism is so popular in Latin American fiction. There is definitely something magic in the air and in
Cucuta, I often felt like I was actually in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.  Well… somewhere between that and a re-run of Miami Vice.

At work as Relatora, Cucuta

Part Two (Consultations in Santa Marta) to follow.

What am I doing here anyway?

October 27, 2011

Warning: this post is more informative than entertaining.

Before I write anymore “experience” posts I decided to write a general post on what I am actually doing here since I have received that question several times since publishing my blog!

I am here in Bogota through the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Abroad Programme.  Through this programme, the CBA, in conjunction with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), sends a group of young lawyers abroad each year to gain international law experience.  These young lawyers are sent to human rights organizations, legal resource centres, legal clinics, etc. in
various countries in Africa, South America, and South-East Asia.  This year participants are working in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Guyana, and Colombia.

My posting is obviously in Colombia! This is the first year for my placement here at ONIC. During my seven months here I will be working
primarily with the Territorio section of ONIC, and will also work on projects with Avocats Sans Frontieres (ASF).

ONIC (Organizacion Nacional Indigena de Colombia) is a national non-profit organization that promotes the rights of indigenous persons
in Colombia.  They work specifically with the defense of the autonomy of indigenous persons, defending the history, traditions and culture of indigenous persons, defending territorial rights, and aiding in the control of natural resources situated on indigenous lands.  They work not only in the field of general human rights of the indigenous peoples but also specifically in relation to those affected by the armed conflict in Colombia.

My role is to assist with legal research and advocacy related to international humanitarian law and human rights law in the context
of indigenous persons. Much of my work will be specifically related to the effects of the ongoing non-international armed conflict here in Colombia.

To date, I have been participating in consultations on a new law aimed at assisting victims of the armed conflict (Ley de Victimas).  The Colombian government has the same Duty to Consult that the Canadian government has towards indigenous persons.  Basically this means that the Colombian government  must consult indigenous groups on new laws or other actions that will affect their rights (territorial rights, etc.). I arrived here at ONIC just as they were preparing to head out on countrywide consultations with the various indigenous groups.  My first two weeks were spent in meetings  here in Bogota with other members of ONIC, representatives of various indigenous groups, and government representatives. We were given intensive courses on the various aspects of the law and the methodology we would use to teach  it.  We then began travelling to do the consultations; I travelled to Cucuta (north-east on the border with Venezuela)  and Santa Marta (northern coast) and participated in consultations with four different indigenous groups (Bari, U’wa, Chimila, Mokana). There were approximately 130 indigenous representatives at each consultation, many had travelled on foot for days and were going to return to
their villages with the materials we provided to teach those that were unable to attend. Each of those consultations was two days long. My specific task was to take notes and record the discussions/important points/what was taught/etc. However, as part of the team we all participated generally in teaching the law and discussions and question and answer sessions with the indigenous representatives as well. After each consultation I returned to Bogota and spent 1-2 days preparing the required documentation to record what took place at the consultation.
We have a few more regional consultations to go, after which we begin the “Macros”(follow-up meetings from the regional meetings) and finally a national meeting at the end of November. I am on the team for one of the Macros next week and the following week I will participate in a special consultation with indigenous persons from various groups who have been displaced from their territories as a result of the armed conflict.

So that’s the big picture! It has been an amazing professional experience so far and as a bonus I have been able to see different regions of the country and learn about very distinct cultures in a very short time. It has been an extremely busy six weeks: my excuse for being behind in my blogging! However, now that we have the basics, I will fill you in on the specifics ASAP!

Thanks for reading!

Consultations in Cucuta

Bogota or Bust: My First Days in Bogota

September 20, 2011

Within 3 days of arriving in Bogota, I had a blood test, was finger-printed and found myself running through one of the most dangerous
neighbourhoods in Bogota. There was never any question that Colombia would be exciting, and my first days in Bogota did not disappoint!

After only a few days here, if I were asked to describe Colombia in one word it would be: exciting! Whether negative or positive, there
is always an incomprehensible amount of action in this country.  The Colombian people have been extremely helpful and caring and have made my arrival in Colombia extremely smooth.  Knock on wood, but I never would have expected moving to Colombia to be so easy! That said, the first days were not without their frightening moments.

I was a little nervous preparing for Colombia as I had only just gone through the same process (moving to a new country, finding somewhere
to live, etc.) the year before when I had begun looking for places to live in Switzerland five months before my arrival in that country.  Last year, I had an extremely difficult time and finally found temporary accommodation only thanks to some good karma from having volunteered with Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV), when someone from CISV Switzerland agreed to take me in temporarily (I was officially
“homeless” for more than two months, but was saved again by an extremely generous Canadian family!). Needless to say I was apprehensive.  However, my experience with Colombia could not have been more different, within a week of starting my search  I had two apartments and unbeknownst to me, two pick-ups from the airport without even asking….this time was going to be different!

My actual arrival in Bogota could not have gone any smoother, my roommates Clara and Lucas were there yelling and waving as soon as
I got off the plane.  My office had also sent someone to pick me up, sorry again Alejandro! That night we had a nice chat in my new home, a lovely apartment in la Soledad neighbourhood and the following morning they prepared a welcome brunch for me.

Bogota Day 1:

Clara and Lucas graciously offered to tour me around the city for my first day in Bogota.  A local radio station was presenting an afternoon concert of various bands.  We headed to the centre to check it out. We settled into the crowd for the outdoor concert. I was feeling very old.  People were all in leather, ripped jeans, combat boots, etc.  I took off my glasses and tried to channel my long lost fourteen year-old Bad-Religion-obsessed self but doubt I really fooled anyone.  There was one particularly interesting pair in front of us, one had his face painted white, had made some seriously scary clothing choices, and both were piercing their skin to put ink inside it as tattoos. The first couple bands were okay, again, channelling old self at Lagwagon gigs at the market in Fredericton.  But then things got serious, the ink guy ran up to the stage and was visibly
excited and we knew we should be worried. Everything went dark, including the sky (seriously, huge rain clouds appeared), and four or five huge men emerged, painted head to toe in white and black make-up, with massive fake nails, the lead “singer” with some kind of blade attached to his hand and they all started screaming into their microphones.  The crowd went wild. The skies opened up. It began pouring rain down on us.  I tried to be cool. I really did.  But we only lasted about ten minutes and then decided to leave. On our walk out I turned to Clara and Lucas and said: “Well,  if I wasn’t scared of Colombia before, I am now!”


Bogota Day 2: Fun with Immigration

The following day went surprisingly smoothly.  This was my “errands” day so I was prepared for frustration. I had to find “DAS”, the Colombian department of immigration, to trade in my visa for a residency permit.  First adventure of the day was riding on the back of Lucas’ motorbike on
the highway: welcome to Colombia!

The immigration process actually went surprisingly smoothly, luckily I had extensive training in immigration matters dealing with the Swiss government last year. There were many steps to be followed to get my Colombian government-issued I.D. (not something I every really expected to have!), including having a blood test and being finger-printed.  However, everyone was extremely helpful and
after five hours of Amazing-Race-like procedures, my application was in and I was on my way to the Canadian embassy to register.

Given how smoothly everything had gone all day I decided to take my chances with the elusive “mini-buses” to get home.  There are no bus stops here, you just stand on the side of the road and wave down the bus you want (meaning you need to know which bus you want). Amazingly, the first bus I flagged down went right by my neighbourhood.  I didn’t know exactly how the system worked but immediately I had three fellow bus-riders sitting with me discussing my options for drop-off points.  In the end one of them got off with me and walked me halfway home until a point where I recognized where I was. So far the Colombian people have been absolutely amazing, and the best part is they keep telling me how “cold” people are here in Bogota and telling me how much more helpful everyone will be when I get out of the capital!

Day 3: Mission: Locate ONIC Offices in La Candelaria (the Old Town)

Feeling extremely confident with my success at finding everything  and crossing town in a mini-bus on my own the day
before, I decided to attempt the “TransMilennio” public transport system…this is Bogota’s answer to a subway (metro), it is a high-speed commuter bus-tram, so complicated the Lonely Planet warns against using it but then provides extensive instructions just in case.
This was a disaster.  I won’t go into details but even following specific instructions and remaining on high alert I ended up on a bus that for some reason skipped five stops (even though it was marked “Facil” (easy), which is supposed to stop at every stop. It did not stop at every stop, nor was it “facil”. ) and I ended up on the completely opposite side of town vowing never to ride the TransMilennio again.

I finally made my way to the Candelaria and settled into a wonderful little restaurant near the main square.  I ordered a Bandeja Paisa, a huge traditional platter that consists of rice, egg, sausage, chicharonnes (fried pork rinds), beans, avocado, and fried plaintains.

Fueled by my platter of protein and in consideration of my
morning adventures with public transport, I made the somewhat ill-advised
decision to walk home…

A Leisurely Stroll through Santa Fe

During my preparations for this programme I spoke with many people who were either Colombian or had been to Colombia and each one provided one of two opinions; some version of “Oh my God, Colombia is dangerous” and “never EVER get in a taxi in Bogota” or “Colombia is safe now, no worries, it is not the old Colombia”.  In an effort to be open minded and positive I went with the latter. However, I quickly learned that neither of those reactions were completely true and that the “new” Colombia falls somewhere in between. Yes, I am sure it is not the “old” Colombia, but veer off the faint traveller trail for even a moment and you quickly learn that what people see while travelling and while living in Colombia are two completely distinct things. I learned this lesson quickly during this walk home.  I did some investigating on the map and saw I could walk directly up 13th Avenue, the home of my beloved TransMilennio. Now I assumed that since this bus was always full of people, this street would be a safe bet…but I quickly learned I was very wrong.  I started up 13th and really it was pretty deserted, the farther north I went, the more deserted and sketchy it got.  Since my neighbourhood was north-west, I decided to veer west and look for a better option. This is when things got interesting.  Instead of getting better it only got worse but by the time I realized this it was too late to turn back.  Constant construction did not help and I kept ending up being funnelled into secluded sections of the neighbourhood.  I started going by open doors with seemingly sketchy deals taking place, then more doors with women in extremely short skirts standing out front…but then I looked again and sure enough, I was the only woman to be found, those were not women, although they had obviously had
some impressive chest-work done to fool the less observant.  I started walking faster and faster and eventually was in such a precarious situation I started talking out loud to myself “Get yourself out of here Allison, GET yourself out of here”.  At this point almost running, I emerged on the other side to yet another secluded street under construction but with fewer illicit deals. After about 15 minutes I emerged into a much safer area and made my way home.  When I arrived home and explained where I’d been, my roommate told me I had just walked through Santa Fe, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Bogota, one that no one ever went to.  This became the joke around the office the next few days; I’d only been in Bogota for 3 days and had already visited Santa Fe.  So I learned my lesson to take Colombia seriously, and have since been much more prudent.

Welcome to my blog!

September 18, 2011

Hi Everyone! My name is Allison Thomas and this is my first blog.  I am a Canadian lawyer living and working in Bogota, Colombia, through the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Abroad Programme.  I am currently in the thick of my transition from corporate litigator to international lawyer.  I left my job as a corporate lawyer a little over a year ago to pursure my passion for social justice.  My first step into the world of international law was to pursue an LL.M. in international humanitarian and human rights law at the ADH Academy in Geneva, Switzerland.  After what was unexpectedly an extremely challenging year, I was offered this position through the Canadian Bar Association.  I am currently working as a lawyer with ONIC (Organizacion Nacional Indigena de Colombia), the national organization of indigenous persons of Colombia.  I provide counsel in the areas of human rights law and humanitarian law (the laws of armed conflict), specifically in relation to indigenous persons in Colombia.  I hope to chronicle these early adventures in international law here in this blog and plan to add some posts on various international law issues later on as well.

Am I living the dream? Here’s hoping! I hope you will follow my journey and decide for yourselves!