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.[1] About 200 families live here, in overcrowded houses, without running water nor proper roads. This is just one of the many informal settlements where the 6 millions internally displaced by the armed conflict live. Here, the daily reality is a cocktail of poverty, narcotraffic, and violence. It stands in striking contrast with the hopeful ‘post-conflict’ rhetoric promoted by the Colombian government.

In my research I investigate how young people who grow up in these contexts experience the ‘transition to peace’ the country is supposedly undergoing.

“What are the main problems in your neighbourhood?”  I ask 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 resilience. The dreadful picture of a conflict that 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 the 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 these contexts, where excess of trust comes at a high price.


[1] 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.