Sahara is from the USA and recently volunteered with PBI in August 2022. There, they provided protective accompaniment to three organisations in Chihuahua; Centro de Derechos Humanos Paso del Norte A.C. (CDHPdN A.C.), Consultoría Técnica Comunitaria A.C (CONTECA.C.) and Alianza Sierra Madre A.C. (ASMAC).
Sahara supported threatened human rights defenders in Northern Mexico as part of a team alongside volunteers from Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Spain, and El Salvador.
Sahara shared some of their experiences with us to document what it’s like to be on the frontline of PBI.
Today was day three of our week-long Team Retreat. We spent the day evaluating the past 6 months of accompaniment with the NGOs we work with, and giving feedback on the 3-year strategic plan that PBI Mexico is developing. While physical accompaniment is definitely the most exciting part of being a volunteer with PBI, we spend the majority of our time in the office. Nonetheless, the internal work - especially strategic planning like we’ve been doing this week - is crucial in order to be able to best support the human rights defenders we support. We spent the evening relaxing as a team, watching a movie in our living room. It was great being able to spend time relaxing with my fellow volunteers (and eating my favourite jalapeño-flavoured potato chips!).
I began the day early with a bilateral meeting with a fellow volunteer to discuss some pending tasks to respond to requests from one of the organisations that we accompany. After the meeting, I put on my PBI vest and hopped in an Uber with two fellow volunteers – we had a meeting at the office of an accompanied organisation in Chihuahua to discuss security protocols due to the threats they are facing. Returning from the meeting, I noticed that the weather has been uncharacteristically warm recently. During our lunch break, I decided to go on a walk in the beautiful park next to our house, admiring the fall foliage. Returning to the office, I spent the rest of the day working on getting the team’s finances in order as part of my role on the Finance Committee.
I began the day by brewing coffee, heating up water for tea, and cutting fresh papaya. We were hosting a meeting in the PBI house with one of the organisations that we provide protective accompaniment to in Chihuahua, and I was in charge of preparing the food and drinks (a very important role, given how necessary coffee is for early-morning meetings!). After the meeting ended, I returned to the office to finalise those Finance Committee tasks. One of the things that I love about PBI is that during the working week, we always pause and eat lunch together as a team – today, one of my fellow volunteers prepared delicious oven-roasted eggplant, and we all ate together in our sunny backyard. Post lunch, we returned to the office for our ReuSem - the weekly team meeting in which we carry out analysis and plan upcoming activities.
We began the day bright and early at 5:30am, as we headed out the door to meet up with one of the human rights organisations that we work with. We all piled into their truck, and began our journey into the stunning Sierra Tarahumara, where we were to provide protective accompaniment to an Indigenous community in a two-day peaceful protest in defence of their territory. As we drove down winding roads, I stared out the windows, wide-eyed at the mountainous beauty of the Sierra. Upon arriving, we accompanied the community as they intermittently blocked traffic on a highway outside of an airport constructed on their territory. According to both Mexican and International law, the Indigenous peoples ought to have been fully consulted prior to the airport’s construction, but this didn’t happen, which is why they need to protest - a risky activity given the vested interests at stake. After about four hours, the community gathered to eat together, and we headed back to the hotel before sunset. After checking in, we went to a cosy cafe to debrief over hot chocolate, before turning in for the night.
We began the second day of our accompaniment in the Sierra by joining the community for a breakfast of burritos made from fresh, homemade tortillas - I had fun helping to flip the tortillas on the wood stove, and the burritos were absolutely delicious. After eating, we headed back out to the highway for the second day of the protest. There was a lot of traffic (a good thing for the protest!), and the community members passed out hundreds of flyers, speaking with drivers and raising awareness of the lack of legal recognition of their territory. After breaking for lunch, everyone gathered to debrief the protest and brainstorm next steps for their strategy. It's moments like these that make me grateful to volunteer with PBI: being able to bring international visibility to the work of Indigenous land defenders is invaluable, and the opportunity to accompany the community in the protest was an incredibly meaningful learning experience for me. We bid our goodbyes, and hit the road back to Chihuahua, the setting sun illuminating the mountainous landscape.
After eating breakfast in our bright backyard, I began the day by working on a “risk assessment” for my upcoming vacations. Whenever we leave Chihuahua’s city limits, we conduct an investigation and analysis of our travel location to ensure our security. After completing this analysis, I joined a virtual call for the Advocacy Committee that I also participate in, where we discussed the strategy for our upcoming meetings with Mexican authorities. In these encounters, we’ll present PBI’s work, demonstrate the international concern for the risks human rights defenders face in Chihuahua, and reiterate requests from the organisations that we support. In the afternoon, Ben Leather, the Director of PBI UK, arrived for a short but eventful visit - we ate a delicious homemade late-lunch together, and then headed over to the Government Palace to provide international observation of a meeting to review implementation of the protective measures which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the Mexican government provide to one of the Indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara that is supported by one of the organisations that we provide protective accompaniment to do to the risks this implies.
We began the second day of Ben´s visit with a round-table meeting with representatives of several NGOs that we work with in Chihuahua. Ben shared with the organisations the important work of PBI’s ‘Country Groups’ (or sections around the world), and the resources that they can offer to human rights defenders. The organisations shared requests with Ben for how PBI can best support their work at the international level. One of the organisations thanked PBI for our international advocacy efforts with the Inter-American Court, which they believed helped to expedite an important case. After a successful meeting, we walked through the historic city centre of Chihuahua, arriving at a beautiful restaurant that serves traditional dishes from Puebla state. We returned to the office for an informal chat with Ben, where he shared some tips for advocacy with Mexican and international authorities, before. we realised that evening was upon us and that we were absolutely famished! We ventured out, and ended up devouring Dorinachos - a classic North Mexican snack of Doritos topped with cheese, spicy salsa, corn, and jalapeños.
Today was Saturday, so I slept in, catching up after a hectic week! Once a week we go grocery shopping for the team, and this week it was my turn, so I headed out to the supermarket with reusable bags, a shopping list, and a strict budget. Grocery shopping for so many people on such a tight budget is time-intensive, and I returned home about three hours later. I was starving, so I whipped up a quick lunch of avocado toast before getting on with the rest of the chores we all have to do on a rotating basis. This meant generating invoices, creating digital copies of receipts, and cleaning the bathrooms. After a chilled afternoon, we prepared our backyard for a party, bringing out the rainbow disco lights, a giant speaker, drinks and snacks, and (last but definitely not least) neon wigs! We danced the night away, belted out song lyrics together, and had a much-needed chance to relax and recharge.
In PBI, we are always on-call in case any of the human rights defenders we work with faces an emergency. We have a cellphone that’s used solely for emergencies - each day of the week one volunteer is in charge of the phone, and that same person also cooks lunch for the team and cleans the kitchen. Today it was my turn, so after a morning meeting of the Gender Working Group (the majority of PBI’s staff and volunteers are women, PBI works with a number of women’s rights organisations, and protects women defenders facing specific gender-specific risks), I headed to the kitchen to cook. I decided to make vegan tacos, so I prepared tortillas, beans, veggies, guacamole, and spicy salsa (always necessary!). I spent the afternoon working on assignments to ensure that a decolonization angle runs through PBI’s work, before heading downtown with a friend for dinner and drinks.
Now that it's nearing the holidays, the pace of work has slowed down slightly, so I had a pretty relaxing morning, drinking lemon ginger tea and working on a report. In PBI, it's very important to document in detail all of the events and activities that we attend since volunteers are only in the field for a year and current events will inform future analysis and decisions. After finishing the report, I joined the team for quinoa, tofu, and a veggie stir fry. I spent the afternoon preparing for the ReuSem. This week, it was my job to facilitate the meeting, meaning I was in charge of preparing the agenda and answering all the emails that arrive to our team account. After finishing work, I grabbed a snack and headed out to yoga. A few of us take classes in our neighbourhood studio - it's a great way to relax outside of work.
PBI wouldn’t be able to work in the way we do without amazing people like Phoebe, who volunteer their time to accompany brave human rights defenders. They stand shoulder to shoulder with Indigenous communities, environmental organisations, lawyers, women’s organisations, trade unions and relatives of people who have been forcibly disappeared.
PBI's continued presence means that we are one of the only organisations that can advocate at all levels - from soldiers at a local checkpoint to the leaders of the UN - and provide ongoing protection, support and training to threatened human rights defenders.