“Even walls have ears here” - Notes from Colombia

Elena Butti

Anxiety builds up as I climb up the hill that takes me to one of the poorest and most violent neighbourhoods I have visited during my fieldwork in Colombia.

"What are the main problems in your neighbourhood?" I asked a group of kids I meet.

"Drugs addiction and lack of water," they say.

"And violence?"


"Not much. Domestic violence."

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing else."

I know that the armed actors are still strong in the neighbourhood. But I don't want to push, and remain silent. Then, my gatekeeper calls apart two of the kids: "Let's go for a walk with Elena," he says. As soon as we leave the group, the kids start telling me powerful stories of threats, invisible frontiers, fear, and resilleince. The dreadful picture of a conflictthat is still alive. "You know," they tell me, "when outsiders come here, we always tell them the same story: drugs, water and domestic violence. We never talk about te real problems. Because even walls have ears here."

Such direct words forcefully illustrate the practical and ethical complexities of researching sensitive topics in high-risk settings. People might tell you only half of the story in order to protect themselves. As a researcher, you have to take anonymity and confidentiality very seriously. Gatekeepers become especially important in the contexts, where excess of trust comes at a high price.


♦ In order to protect the safety of my research subjects, I have decided not to specify the name nor to provide a picture of the location.

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