Saturday, 14 July 2012

Balancing trust and mistrust and openness and reserve are some of the subtleties of my life and work here. They are also measures of Colombia and its conflict.

Colombian society is open, so much more so than European and Arab countries. In contrast with the buildings of the Maghreb whose windows face into inner courtyards and are closed to the street, to prying eyes, to the public sphere, here you look into people’s lives from the street even if you don’t want to. Houses don’t have hallways and so you find yourself looking straight into people’s living rooms, witnessing people’s lives unfolding as they watch tv, eat, talk. Life unravels more publicly here. Hammocks are strung up outside and front doors are normally open. Campesino life is in many ways even more open. Houses have open fronts and sometimes can’t even be closed off or locked. Everyone knows everyone and you greet every person you pass on the path. Latin culture is unguarded and vibrant; you can talk, dance and express yourself freely.

And then there’s the conflict. And the conflict seeps its roots into the civilian population and sows mistrust. It means people close themselves off to one another. People don’t share because they don’t know if their neighbor is an informant for the guerrilla, or sells coca to the paramilitaries. People don’t know what they can say or who they can talk to. This vacillates with the ebbs and flows of the conflict, the territorial gain of one group, the withdrawal of the other, the corresponding shifting alliances of the civilian population. You can find yourself in conversations with strangers reluctant to reveal the most basic aspects of their life to you, like where they live or who their family is. Why do you want to know? What ulterior motives do you have? People’s motives, their allegiances and their beliefs are not clear. The conflict isn’t clear. It’s murky. It’s dirty. It’s hard to identify the truth and hard to know who to trust.

I still don’t fully comprehend how these two dynamics play out and play into one another. Many of the mistakes I have made in recent months have to do with these subtleties, these shifting lines. Sometimes I’m too guarded; other times not guarded enough. Sometimes I’m too honest; other times not honest enough. Building trust with those I accompany as well as my colleagues is essential to my work. It is fragile, so hard to build and so much harder to rebuild once broken.

The lines of our role here are difficult to manage and define. How can I live and share everything with a set of people I have to remain emotionally and physically distant from, with whom I can´t express feelings of uncertainty, fears, complaints? When it is impossible to maintain a semblance of a work-life balance, how can I be professional 24 hours a day? The lines can begin to blur and require constant self-awareness to continue to see them in focus.