A Day in the Barrio: Washington DC meets Medellin

students and teachers practice drills during a gunfire simulation at their school in medellin.

students and teachers practice drills during a gunfire simulation at their school in medellin.

In September 2015, Andrea Harrison, Deputy Legal Advisor at the ICRC in Washington DC, had the opportunity to travel to Colombia and gain field exposure with our delegation there. Upon returning, she reflected on some of the activities our colleagues carry out in the country and their impact on society. 

Children screaming, running through the halls and dashing under their desks.  Teachers shouting at students to keep their heads down and occasionally singing to smaller students to keep them calm and still.  As the sounds of gunfire fade, several students begin carrying their wounded classmates down precarious flights of stairs to the nurse’s office.

Thankfully, everything I am witnessing is a simulation carried out by one of the many schools in Medellin affected by armed violence in their respective “barrios”.   On this particular day, four schools are being evaluated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to see how well they implement the security procedures they have been taught over the past months.  One school quite literally sits underneath the main drug trafficking plaza in the area, and thus has been caught in the cross-fire of turf wars between the local gangs or “combos”. 

A notice on the school gate informs arrivals that there will be an "armed conflict simulation" and to "stay calm."

A notice on the school gate informs arrivals that there will be an "armed conflict simulation" and to "stay calm."

The ICRC and the Colombian Red Cross Society (CRCS) have been working with these schools, as well as a number of others in surrounding barrios in Medellin, to help them improve their ability to stay safe when violence erupts.  Teachers and students learn best practices for when gunfire erupts nearby, and each school even has a team of students designated to collect wounded friends and teachers.  During this simulation, they practice CPR and binding wounds (wounded students are covered in red paint for added effect!).  At the end of the exercise, classes and playtime resume as if nothing had happened, but it’s clear that the administrators in the schools take this exercise very seriously. 

Working with schools on security procedures is just one part of the ICRC’s work on urban violence in Medellin.  The ICRC has worked for decades in Colombia, mostly related to the armed conflict between the “Guerilla”, paramilitaries, and the government of Colombia, but in places like Medellin, the violence – and thus the needs of the population – is of a different sort.    The ICRC has worked on urban violence in other countries, such as Rio de Janeiro, and in other areas of Colombia, such as Buenaventura and Tumaco.  However, the project in Medellin stands apart as an excellent example of how different components of the Red Cross Movement can work together to improve the lives of persons affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence. 

Called MEHMA (in English, “More Humanitarian Spaces, More Alternatives ), this joint ICRC-CRCS urban violence project began in 2012 and will finish at the end of this year.  In addition to school safety, the ICRC works with the CRCS to promote and implement other projects such as access to income-generating initiatives and vocational training in particularly poor or violent neighborhoods, health workshops for women affected by sexual or gender-based violence, and training sessions with weapon bearers on the use of force.

My visit to Medellin was part of an “exposure mission” to the ICRC’s field work in Colombia, and it was truly a humbling experience.  Medellin has been fairly calm since 2013, but for those of you watching the Netflix series “Narcos” right now, you are probably aware of just how incredibly dangerous and violent is was both during the years of Pablo Escobar, and during the turf war that followed his demise.  Medellin has been trying to invent itself as a modern, progressive city, which the city center reflects with its glistening skyscrapers, remarkably pristine metro system and beautiful museums and gardens.  Yet the outskirts of the city still remain at the mercy of various armed groups or gangs, providing a stark contrast.

After five years of working as a legal advisor in the ICRC in Geneva and Washington D.C., Colombia was a reminder of the very basic and essential services the ICRC provides to persons affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.  While sitting on a panel in D.C. discussing what international law says about medical access in armed conflict and situations of violence is also important, it was a new experience sitting next to a woman in one of the poorest areas of Medellin as she discussed the difficulties of getting a sick friend to a local hospital when no one she knows owns a car and no government doctor would be willing to venture up to that part of the city where the “combos” do the policing and where a constant tension existswith respect to territorial control. 

As an international humanitarian law (IHL) lawyer, it was also a reminder that often it’s not the law – or not just the law – that helps the ICRC get access to vulnerable communities.  Often it’s the fact that governments, armed groups and ordinary citizens alike recognize that the ICRC understands and works to address the most basic needs of persons affected by violence, such as access to medical care or the means to make a living.  People affected by violence see the ICRC staff entering their neighborhoods, no matter how dangerous or poor, and engaging directly with community leaders, the police, and even leaders of armed gangs.  This willingness of my colleagues to go where very few others are willing to go (occasionally including the government itself) helps build trust with the communities and opens doors for the Red Cross Movement to carry outs its work in Medellin and around the world.