Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 11 September 2009

In honor & remembrance

Today is the first anniversary of an event that sent shock waves throughout an already staunchly divided Bolivia and indirectly affected the direction of my life to date.  On September 11th, 2008, a group of campesinos from rural Pando marched into their departmental capital—Cobija—and were met at the edge of the city by departmental police and military forces.  The confrontation turned violent and the campesinos, armed only with rocks and sticks, were no match for the government troops and suffered a minimum of fourteen deaths.  Some early estimates were as high as thirty.  The then Prefect (governor) of the department of Pando was later arrested and is currently awaiting trial on genocide charges for his involvement in the massacre.  In an “only in Bolivia” twist of fate, it was announced this week—on the eve of the anniversary of this horrific tragedy—that Leopoldo Fernandez will run for Vice President in this December’s election from his jail cell in the infamous San Pedro prison in La Paz.  His running mate?  Ousted Cochabamba Prefect, Manfred Reyes Villa.

In the midst of this domestic tragedy, Bolivia and the United States—both countries that I consider in some ways to be my patria—waged a tit-for-tat diplomatic war with each other, culminating in the dismissal of the Ambassadors from each country, the withdrawal of the Peace Corps from Bolivia, the dismissal of the DEA and the de-certification of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics efforts.   One year later, the Peace Corps still has not returned with volunteers and the US Embassy in La Paz is still functioning sans Ambassadorial leadership.  I wonder how many countries in the world today do not have US Ambassadors?  Cuba, surely.  Iran?  North Korea?  Burma?  In truth, I don’t know the answer to this question, but nevertheless, I imagine that Bolivia would find itself an awkward oddball in a list of otherwise “rogue” nations.

Today is also the anniversary of another event that dramatically shaped our world.   Eight years ago (wow, has it really been that long?) today, three thousand innocents in New York and Arlington, Virginia perished and our world, as we knew it, changed.   My world, my day to day, despite my family’s proximity to the Pentagon remained mostly the same, however.  As an American—at home or abroad—September 11th will always be a day for somber remembrance and reflection.

September 11th, 2008 was no exception.  However, on September 11th, 2008, my world changed.  My day to day was swept out from underneath me, seemingly without warning.  My biggest worry when I woke up that morning was whether I had made enough refresco for all the thirsty revelers that were expected in La Palma, the community I served in as a Peace Corps volunteer. We were receiving a visit from a group of teachers from across the department of Chuquisaca.  Around 5pm that afternoon, I received a call from Peace Corps informing me of the Pando massacre, of the dismissal of the US Ambassador, Philip Goldberg, of the worsening gas and water shortages in Santa Cruz and Tarija, and of my reservation on the first flight out of Sucre to Cochabamba the next day.  I was to bring my passport and any valuables.   I had two hours to pack and say: “I hope this is not goodbye.”

The days that followed were a blur of tears, “what ifs”, boredom, hotels, uncertainty and finally heartache.  On Sunday, September 14th, we were flown from Cochabamba to Lima, Peru.  Peace Corps/Bolivia was officially suspended the following morning, and the path I had spent the past nine months carving out took a unexpectedly sharp turn.

Today, I am sitting in the place where it all began for me: Cochabamba.  My love affair with this landlocked, underpopulated, overwhelmingly indigenous, mega-diverse, superlative Andean nation began in this valley.  Upon closing my service with the Peace Corps, my love for Bolivia only continued to grow.  I returned on my own shortly after we were pulled out, and spent much of the rest of 2008 in la patria.  As I boarded a Buenos Aires-bound plane in early January, I had no idea when I would return. However, serendipitously, I have returned sooner than I had expected.   In the abrupt slamming shut of one door, many other windows of opportunity presented themselves.  My heart will always ache for the way that my Peace Corps service ended.  However, the ripple effects of that event have been overwhelmingly positive and inspiring.

I am grateful for the community of volunteers that I served with.   I am inspired by the many things they find themselves doing now: managing a Bolivian NGO which promotes literacy in rural Chuquisaca, teaching science amidst a recent and fragile peace in Liberia, creating opportunities for women in rural Kenya to receive credit and break the cycle of poverty, advocating for bike safety and increased ridership in urban America, encouraging home communities to combine environmental stewardship with an entrepreneurial spirit aimed at combating the hardships induced by the economic downturn, hiking the legendary Appalachian Trail while raising money to fight hunger in Bolivia, returning to service with the Peace Corps in Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Armenia, Morocco and beyond… These are incredible folks.  True Ambassadors.

This September 11th is an opportunity for reflection and remembrance.   It is also, however, an opportunity to look forward.  I am so lucky to have found my way back to mi querida Bolivia.  As I begin a new semester working as an instructor with “Where There Be Dragons”, I have twelve eager minds, twelve brave souls, twelve inspiring young adults to experience the wonders of Bolivia with.  These next three months promise to be exciting and challenging.  As we barrel full-steam ahead into another Bolivian election season, I am comforted by the peace that presides over most of the country these days.

May we remember always those who lost their lives in Pando, in New York, in Arlington…

May we remember always that what unites us is far richer than what divides us…

May we remember always that life is a journey…

May we remember always…



  1. Reading this reminded me of a note I made while Tuong and I were driving cross country last year-

    Day 6: 9/16/08
    Leave Albuquerque, NM: 9:45am MDT
    Cross continental divide: 11:20am MDT
    Colorado state line: 1:05pm MDT
    Bolivia: 5:05pm MDT – NRP

    That’s when I first heard (on some local Colorado/Utah NRP station) that you were being evacuated from Bolivia. (I remember Tuong was asleep and I woke him up to tell him.) I guess it had been official for a almost a day already, but it was the first I’d heard.

    Oh what a year it’s been. Love you friend.

  2. The candidates

    • Hey Helen,

      This is fresh in my mind because I am just now reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, but anyway, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Hope you are well!

      “The official version, repeated a thousand times and mangled out all over the country by every means of communication the government found at hand, was finally accepted: there were no dead, the satisfied workers had gone back to their families, and the banana company was suspending all activity until the rains stopped.”

      —Gabriel García Márquez

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