Friday, February 3, 2012

The Most Difficult Decision

I logged in to write this post today and briefly scanned the top of my blog where I wrote, almost 2 years ago, "I am completing a life long dream to live, work and serve abroad." I still remember the tangible feeling of, for the fist time in my young life upon arriving in Guatemala, truly living my dream. I was fresh out of college. I was terrified. I had never held a real job or any major responsibility. I had simply allowed my heart and most earnest passions guide me here.

Last Thursday, that dream rather abruptly changed course. Peace Corps announced that I would be evacuated from my site due to two groups fighting over a water source (it's the peak of dry season here), fighting in between two rings of smugglers selling illegal gasoline from Mexico, and that, due to an impending declaration of a "state of siege" to combat drug trafficking, I will be permanently re-located to a safer location.

I am not alone. Almost half of my fellow PCVs from my training group will be re-located or given the option to early "COS" or "Close of Service," due to the purported security concerns. An early COS is akin to a "honorable discharge" from the military - honorable status for your service and full benefits in recognition of the fact that forces outside of your control forced you to leave. Most of us will choose to leave early; we have only about 7 months left in our service, so the 'point' to staying and attempting to make any real difference in this little time would most likely be futile. I haven't made my decision yet, but regardless of that decision, I will have to leave my home in Tejutla, San Marcos.

I wasn't done. My community and I are trying to build a school. I had plans for HIV education with the Ministry of Health in my department this fiscal year with
PEPFAR. My counterpart in the health center, Sonia, and I were working on building a nutrition program through the local government office. I was helping a local cooperative to gain a professional nutritional analysis for a healthy product that would be sold to all of the schools in my municipality for their snack.

I had resolved to spend more time with my host family. Myself and the group of children that live by my apartment have art projects planned, and Sundays to spend together watching Sesame Street in Spanish and baking bread. I will have to say goodbye to all of my courageous and beautiful fellow Peace Corps volunteers and site-mates that I have grown to call family.

I should feel angry. Angry for the loss. The sense of regret, failure, displacement, and chaos. Truthfully, I feel swept up in the tide of the forces that be - Peace Corps Washington, statistical reports, press releases and media announcements indicating Central America, or more specifically the "Northern Triangle," (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) as "the most dangerous place in the world outside of an active war zone," Congress' new law protecting PCVs, and the new wave of politics in Guatemala. And I feel in awe of being but a tiny, seemingly inconsequential part of this giant process.

As the
New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, CNN and Peace Corps press-releases have announced, Central America is getting more dangerous. More drug-related violence. More armed robberies on buses. More this, more that. And they aren't lying or distorting the facts - Central America really has never been a "safe" destination, particularly the border regions where high levels of drug trafficking take place; places where PCVs often work in rather close proximity to. This isn't to say Peace Corps is throwing volunteers into perilous regions - in fact, they do all they can, much to our bereavement, to make sure we do not place ourselves in potentially dangerous situations or locations.

I, for example, work in HIV/AIDS education. I live in a border department where the high-risk populations for HIV/AIDS live and travel through - yet, I cannot directly travel to the border to work. Okay. I swallow this. I would love to go there, but I abide by Peace Corps standards and their religious-like attention to my whereabouts and safety. I do not go.

The fact remains, as Carlos Torres, the Peace Corps Regional Director for the Inter-American and Pacific Region (IAP), revealed to volunteers this past Wednesday: that apart from the region being dangerous all-around, it's violence is directly affecting volunteers - 1 out of 10 volunteers experiences a "serious crime incident" (SCI) every year in Guatemala. SCIs are different from "general crime," (petty theft, etc), and include incidents such as rape or armed robbery, etc. However, Peace Corps volunteers serve for over 2 years. This is not good news.

Director Torres shared a story with us in his tempered and blessedly informative talk, about a discussion he had with the female PCV who was shot in the leg during a bus assault in Honduras recently. As they were speaking about the incident, she told him that she had done everything her Safety and Security Officer had trained her to do when gunshots are fired on a bus - sit close to the window, duck under the seat and do not try to protect anyone. This gave Director Torres pause - wait, wait, wait, he responded, "they're training you how to avoid bullets?" At what point, he asked rhetorically, do we say to ourselves "what are we doing here?"

I instinctually agree. Peace Corps Guatemala recently rolled out a new transportation policy to protect volunteers. We already lack a great deal of freedom to leave our sites and experience other parts of the country; a third of the country is currently off-limits to volunteers for travel. What kind of quality of life is this? None of us expected this, to be sure.
More importantly, returning to my example of HIV/AIDS education, what am I doing here if the most at-risk populations that I have the potential to affect are completely off-limits to me for my security? Or the poorest of the poor locales in Guatemala are deemed unsafe to work in for my main project, food security?

Over a year ago, Peace Corps sent up a red flag about our region when their 2010 yearly portfolio (a report that takes into account not only safety and security issues, but achievements for Goal 1 and 2, host country commitment, strategic goals of the United States, the Human Development Index (of which PC tries to only operate in countries that preform below half) and other critical indicators), contained alarming information about the safety of volunteers.

Thus, in March 2011, Peace Corps sent a team down to our region on a fact-finding mission to discover what was going on with the reported increase in crime. Almost concurrently, the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime released statistical reports about Central America. The World Bank study said that the population of Spain and Central America are roughly equal, and that in 2010, Spain experienced 336 murders, while Central America experienced 14,257. That is an increase in the homicide rate by a factor of 40.

Homicide rates are universally used to conduct studies of crime because they are reliable - almost always, there is a body. There is no gray area with murders - a body is a body. Usually speaking, high homicide rates go hand in hand with general lawlessness, so this statistic is used to judge the safety of a given country or region. In our case, it can also be used to judge how safely volunteers can serve in a given country.

After the tragic murder of a PCV in Benin a few years ago, Congress recently passed the
Kate Puzey Protection Act, which has sensitized media to PCV safety. From my discussions with Peace Corps staff, the general consensus at this juncture in time is to protect us, even if that means disrupting our service - no one can afford the bad press.

And I sit in awe. I can't help but feel a veil of safety - whether real or imagined - in my site. I have close relationships with my counterparts. I am generally happy and only feel uncomfortable when traveling, and okay, when I see a burned-out car from a drug-related car chase down the road from my house. Or when the local police are evacuated due to threats from locals to kill or capture them.

Sonia and I passed the burned-out car surrounded by hundreds of people several months ago, and I remember looking to her with wide-eyes and confusion; she responded with a huff and a deep eye-roll that said "this is just the way it is, it will pass."

Is she the frog in the pot of water that slowly comes to boil, killing her slowly? Is this how Guatemalans respond to violence, while Americans working here are the frogs that hop in to the already boiling pot and instantly realize the danger of staying? When is enough enough for anyone?

Part of me recognizes the dangers - I am putting my life at risk by serving in Guatemala in the border region. Yet part of me instantly feels indignant as this thought passes. I am a college graduate who willingly accepted these risks to serve my country, my fellow humans and to learn about the realities of the world I live in.

What is more tragic, then: a premature death that befalls a Peace Corps volunteer who willingly serves and has carte blanche to leave at any time, or an 18-year old kid who joined the Army because he couldn't pay for college, cannot leave his service honorably if he chooses, and gets killed in Afghanistan? One is justified because our country willingly accepts the sacrifice of a life dedicated towards the paradoxical killing of others in the name of safety and peace, and not the other for dedicating their life to peacefully improving the lives of others in the name of creating a world without conflict to begin with? This reasoning is fucking broken, America.

I'll take the training to avoid bullets, thank you.

Our military, for one, has already made tremendous steps, for better or for worse, to involving themselves in sustainable development. They are building schools and infrastructure in the Middle East. I am building a school in Guatemala. We both have the same goal, our rules are different.

My opinion is clearly jaded and aggrieved - I have to personally tell 77 middle school children and their parents that I cannot be present to guide them through the rest of the construction process. And yes, I do agree with Director Torres - what are we doing here if we cannot work in high-impact areas?

Do I take the early COS option, then, and return on my own to build the school thereby taking a higher personal risk to my safety by not having Peace Corps to assist me if an emergency arrises? Or do I heed my superiors suggestions and leave San Marcos thereby leaving all of my work unfinished and hundreds of people with a questionable impression of not only Peace Corps but the United States, and not to mention, myself? This is not a choice. This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my young life.

Taking a step back from my hot-headed bereavement, I acknowledge that my role as a PCV is small. I have made an impact already in the lives of a few. I am satisfied with this. But I suppose, then, the ultimate question becomes:

Standing at the receiving end of a cascade of events (safety and security concerns on behalf of Peace Corps and international institutions, media attention, Congress), can one persons commitment to the common dream of raising the global standard of living and creating a peaceful world contend with our present world where violence and fear are rising? Is the impact of the work I do worth the risk of my own life? Or perhaps more appropriately put: is the system that creates this violence and impedes development worth approaching on this end at all?

These are the questions that keep me up at night lately. For now, I will return to my site tomorrow. I will attempt to bring closure to my projects in the short term because we will be pulled out at any moment when the state of siege finds financing (currently, the Guatemalan Congress is voting on the 2012 budget, and when the vote passes, Otto Perez Molina has guaranteed a state of siege in San Marcos). My project director is trying to find me a placement with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations if I choose to stay on with Peace Corps for the remainder of my service and not return to Tejutla. How stupid would I be to turn down a job opportunity with the UN at 23 years old? Pretty stupid. How regretful would I feel leaving a school unfinished? Pretty regretful.

Stay tuned...

1 comment:

  1. HI elizabeth, I just wanted to say that you write beautifully and lucidly. I am sorry about your position in Guate, but you hit the nail on the head on so many points in your 'hotheaded' analysis.