Embassy Bogota took President Obama's call for a national day of service in memory of September 11 seriously, and yesterday found dozens of embassy folks at a nearby Colombian Army batallion supporting soldiers who have been permanently injured in the wars Colombia has been fighting against the FARC or guerillas for decades. We came in support also of Corporacion Matamoros which provides training and services to the soldiers and their families. The focus of the day was to get the families, particularly the children, involved in games or art, and to share our understanding of how the soldiers and their families have suffered by reflecting on our own losses via terrorism. It sounds kinda' heavy, but actually it ended up being at first poignant, and then just fun.
The day started with the playing of both countries national anthems (our Ambassador McKinley sang along with Colombia's ¡Oh Gloria Inmarcesible! which I found impressive), speeches from some of the batallion's comanding officers, the Ambassador (see news clip here, select Noticias then scroll down to the words "Homenaje a las victimias del 11-S en Colombia" I think the picture of Old Glory makes it obvious), a director from Corporacion Matamoros, a wounded Colombian soldier and my embassy colleague, Joe Giblin. Joe recited a story about of watching the September 11 events firsthand. Many of the batallion's soldiers, none looking older than 25, are amputees, have been blinded in explosions, or are tramautic brain-injury sufferers.
After the formalities, we divided into groups with the older kids and adults playing frisbee on a large lawn, and the younger ones coming into a large hall where we spread out art supplies on rows of lunch tables. The kids were pretty little, no older than about 6, so their families and the embassy volunteers helped them quite a bit with painting, drawing, molding clay and sticking glitter to anything/one they wanted. I shared a table with a darling young man, Alexander, his three-year old son Dylan and his mother Lucero. Alexander was very open with me in stating that he'd been ambushed while on patrol and had a grenade go off just to his left side, leaving him deaf on that side, damaging his face (you couldn't tell - they did a great job in surgery) and affecting him with PTSD and traumatic brain injury to the point where he now cannot go outside unaccompanied. His wife left him after saying he was "too crazy" and he functions only with heavy medication. Lucero (I don't know how she spells her name) was a very sweet woman who sprinkled "mi amor" into all her sentences, as in "darlin'" and helps with Alexander as much as she can. He told me he receives psychiatric therapy every day, but will only be able to stay with this batallion for another six months. At only age 24, he doesn't know what he will be capable of for the rest of his life. They showed me a picture on the mother's cell phone of the other brother, the spitting image of Alexander, who is currently serving with the Army, "in the jungle somewhere." Other young soldiers admitted to my colleagues that seeing their friends return to the batallion as amputees has made them very afraid to know they'll be heading out to the countryside soon to continue fighting the anti-government guerillas.
I wish that my Spanish skills were stronger, because I spent a lot of time misunderstanding or having them repeat what they were saying "en otras palabras, por favor" (in other words) so that I could grasp it all. We drew pictures of pets, houses, race cars (Dylan) and managed not to spill the paint all over ourselves. After the Frisbee and art activities, we gathered on the big lawn in the center and had burger lunches catered by the embassy. I sat with my "family" and I think I was invited to Dylan's baptism... but I'm not really sure. (As I said - I really wish my comprehension was stronger!)
It was a wonderful experience and I'm very glad I took part, however small my role was. I see from my friends' blogs that there were embassies all over who joined in the day of service. Here is another example from my OMS friend in Rabat, Morocco.
Next up: More weekend excursions