A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas and So Long 2011

2011 is just about over and what a year it has been! On my end, it has been an exciting year for the books although as usual, we all come to this closing with some regret. Hearing the word “regrets” always brings me back to one of the wiser people who have influenced me: my Grandad (or grandfather Bickford). When he was forced to spend years restricted to the Rideaucrest Nursing Home due to a series of debilitating strokes - one of the tougher moments in my life – in a brief moment of lucidity he asked me: “Will, are you happy with your life? Enjoy it and make sure you can’t look back with regret, because you can’t change the past.” These few sentences are dear to my heart and ever since helped me through hard times. From the time he imparted his wisdom onto me, it has been much easier to decide meaningful New Year’s resolutions and keep them as goals I will accomplish.

The Bickfords in 2011

As some of you knew beforehand and others have learned through reading this blog, no matter where the Fab 4 (David, Madeleine, Brian and I) have been, we were always traditional and united when it came to our holidays. Christmas and New Years were times we invested in our relationships (parents, siblings, and now, it has been updated to husband-wife for the Bickford boys) which are the most important pillars of life. You can accomplish a lot with proper support in your home life. The third-culture or transculture experience helped to build a very close network. We created our own microculture yet we are also able to adapt to other cultures easily, exercising the outmost sensitivity. When Brian and I were kids or teenagers, we were always there to dress our Christmas tree, “help” Maman bake festive cookies and watch as Dad carved our trademark turkeys surrounded by stuffing, cranberries, baked potatoes, carrots, peas. After the Christmas meal, we all retired to a well-deserved siesta and thematic movies such as A Christmas Story or National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. Even times where I have not been able to be with my parents or my brother (and now my sister, Melissa, better known as his wife and my favourite little princess, Emma) I have proudly continued with the traditions. My sweet wife Ana has taken to some of these rituals as her own and we have added her cultural spices to the traditional blend, hoping to build new traditions to pass on to future generations of Colombo-Canadians. Sometimes it is not easy to find all the ingredients in some countries where I have been, but when you apply yourself and have some creativity, everything is possible.

Among our special life-long traditions - something I think is worth passing on to people open to adopting new customs - are the stocking stuffers. We tend to go shopping for discounted items or cheap gifts before the special day, which we know will make the person laugh (a complete season 1 of Mr T’s reality show, a chocolate poo-pooing reindeer, doggy bags, a caroling Scooby Doo) or little knick-knacks that the receiver loves (chocolates, candy canes, cookies). These small yet thoughtful gifts always play a key role in setting a festive mood and showing that you do not need to break the bank to make others happy. After all, there is that important saying, “It is the thought that counts.” The most important gift for me this season is to be with those who I hold dearest to my heart. It’s enough of a present. If I cannot physically be with them, I am just happy they are enjoying their time wherever they are and making the most of the season. As priorities take on new faces, it is often hard to have everyone close by, especially with the tough winters we have in Canada causing major setbacks in air, road and rail traffic. In Ontario, we were clever enough to build a long stretch of highway along the Montreal-Kingston-Toronto-Niagara corridor, infamous for lake effect white outs and drifting snow. I cannot recall a smooth drive on that highway due to holiday blizzards. The locals call this miracle of modern engineering the 401, which I have had the pleasure of mentioning over a few entries. It is an icon of Ontario, yours to discover if the weather permits.

Christmas has never been a time in our family for putting a price tag on gifts and thinking: “Well Jack gave me something worth $20 so I will give him something equal in value.”  While in Latin America, we generally used to give gifts, food or anything within our means as a special thank you to the people who made our lives that much easier. In some of those countries, they talk about El Nino Dios (in Ricky Bobby’s Talladega Nights grace, “Baby Jesus”) showing up on December 25th, which is actually an accurate depiction of the holiday. Jolly Saint Nick is an international celebrity representing the commercialization of Christmas, but the actual embodiment of his persona serves as a positive message: “the season of giving.” He gives selflessly. Great example to follow! There are those material gifts we exchange with others, but in fact, the best gift we can give to the world is kindness and caring without expecting anything in return. It is a time to consider all the wonderful things that bless our lives but we should always think of what little thing I could give next year in order to make a world a better place. Instead of rushing everywhere and driving a high-octane adrenaline-based body from one place to the next, we should budget our time and run our errands with a smile. Ever noticed when you speak on the phone with a smile versus a frown, even your voice seems happier? Who doesn’t like happy people? Holding the door for someone you know is coming behind you, (with a smile) and even if they do not say thank you, just tell them “you’re welcome”, and maybe you can convert some people back to a sense of community. We need others to survive, (no man – or woman for that matter - is an island) so let’s all be a little less transactional with each other.

Ana and I in Mont Tremblant, Québec

As opposed to many of the conspiracy theorists (I am sure you have all heard the famous “The Mayans warned us”), 2012 will give us another 12 months to work towards our goals and hopefully reach for the stars with our dreams. If not, there is always 2013, but we have to make the most of time. It is also a chance to think of the greater good, our families, our neighbours, our communities and our planet. Canadians had generally been recognized for their sense of community involvement and being a good neighbour, something I think we can all benefit from. You used to be able to drop a wallet full of money on the street and someone would bring it to your attention, allowing you to recover it. Otherwise, if no one was around, you could double back the next day and you could still find it on the street where you had dropped it, untouched. Not even a dollar gone. This can be achieved through pride in your community, a sense of civic duty, respecting your fellow people as brothers and sisters and being ready to help others not only by thought or prayer. Anyway, I will be back to blogging January 15th, 2012, and hope you all have a safe break and tune-in for a whole new year of stories. I hope to find some time next year to write a novel or even a third-culture book of some kind as it has always been a dream of mine, and continue spreading some positive ingredients we can all use. New Year, new goals.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Aftermath

Dear readers, friends and family, this is the final installment (part 5 of 5) of David Bickford's "A Bloody Summer". Today we revisit the consequences and post-crisis environment in the life of Canadian diplomats and their families. Enjoy the read:

The last official act of the Group of Guarantors was a press conference the day after the release of the hostages. The Guarantors lamented the fact that a peaceful solution had not been reached. They expressed satisfaction that the vast majority of the hostages had survived, but regretted the loss of life, both the hostage killed, the military officers slain, and the 14 MRTA members. As Cipriani expressed it: “Throughout the hostage crisis, I felt like the father of a great family of 86: the 72 hostages and 14 members of the MRTA…My tears are those of a father of a family of 86 persons, of which 17 have been killed in one blow.” Privately, Cipriani later told me how sorry he was that he couldn’t have saved the lives of the teenaged terrorists. It took us all quite some time for the shock of the assault to wear off and to realize that the Group of Guarantors was no more. It was hard to believe that now it really was over.

The heavily secured Canadian Embassy in Lima, Peru

The question of whether the death of all the 14 terrorists was justified continued to be controversial mainly outside Peru. Some suggested that a number of terrorists had raised their hands in surrender, but been shot down, that others had been in hiding after the hostages were freed but were shot when discovered, and several had pleaded for mercy, but to no avail. Several Western European counter-terrorism officers had told me earlier that in such operations, the first priority is to secure the safety of the hostages. Should someone attempt to surrender, you shoot and move on. If you stop to secure a prisoner, you have been diverted from your main task. Also that person may well be faking, and fire at you when you let your guard down. That appears to be the line taken by the Peruvian special forces assault group. Their own losses of two killed and ten badly wounded suggest that the battle was not completely one-sided.

After the rescue operation, the media suggested that Ambassador Vincent, since he was the last member of the Group of Guarantors to enter the Japanese residence – and only two hours before the assault – must have passed the word that the attack would take place that day. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were given no indication by the government that such an attack was to take place. Later Fujimori told the press that the attack would have proceeded as planned even if one of the Guarantors had been inside at the time – truthful but not very diplomatic. Tony was extremely lucky he hadn’t stayed longer, or arrived a bit later.

Nonetheless, the MRTA leadership blamed the Group of Guarantors for the failure of this operation. Apparently, a key part of their strategy had been to execute a hostage every few weeks should talks not proceed, in order to impress upon the Peruvian government the seriousness of their intent and demands. The presence of the Guarantors, particularly Cipriani, made the terrorists in the Japanese residence reluctant to carry this out, and their leaders blamed the Guarantors for interfering. As a result, the Canadian Embassy and its staff remained under a terrorist threat (kidnapping of a senior staff member or a car bomb at the Embassy) for several years after the hostage crisis, until the remnants of the MRTA were either hunted down and killed or imprisoned. My family and I travelled with Peruvian police bodyguards for the next two years, our home had 24 hour armed guards who enjoyed playing basketball with my two sons at shift change time, and the Embassy resembled a bunker with a private guard service within the perimeter of the property, barricades, cement barriers, and high grills/walls with barbed wires surrounding the grounds, and armed SWAT team from the national police (including a bomb squad truck) in the street in front of the building. Not a very welcoming impression for visitors.

Brian, Madeleine, William and David Bickford

Most Peruvians were elated by the result of the rescue operation, and gave the group of Guarantors at least some of the credit – Fujimori never did. For the rest of his time in Peru, Tony was often approached in public places by Peruvians who were anxious to shake his hand and to thank him for his efforts. A year or so later, Francisco Tudela, who had been Peruvian Foreign Minister at the time of the hostage crisis and considered by the MRTA as their prime hostage, told me that, undoubtedly, the Group of Guarantors had saved many lives, including his own. From that point of view, I think we done good, and that it was a good time to be a Canadian in Peru, eh!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Assault – Surprise, Surprise…

Dear readers, this week I am happy to provide you with part 4 of 5 of David Bickford's, "A Bloody Summer." Enjoy the read!

President Fujimori showing off his Chavín de Huantar tunnels

On one of his moral-raising visits to the Japanese residence, Tony was called into the dining room by the leader of the terrorists, Nestor Cerpa, and asked to put his ear to the floor. After a few minutes, scraping was heard underneath, and Cerpa said, “They are digging tunnels, aren’t they”. Tony would not reply. Later, in the Embassy we discussed this and saw it as a bad omen.

With hindsight, it is now clear that Fujimori was pursuing a two-track approach: If the terrorists gave up, all well and good. If they didn’t, he was prepared to send in the army – even though his younger brother was a hostage. For him, the role of the Guarantors was to keep the situation in the residence calm for long enough to build his tunnels. In the meantime, the presence of the Guarantors had given the MRTA a false sense of security. They felt protected, and relaxed their vigilance.  Dangerous for them, they slipped into a routine and the Peruvian authorities ultimately took advantage.

On April 22, 1997, Tony came back from a visit to the Japanese residence at about 13:30. He said that the police around the perimeter of the residence were edgy, tense and aggressive with him. We filed this thought away, but at 15:20 the assault began. Tony, and eventually Cipriani, Terada and one of his officers, clustered around the television in my office at the Embassy and we watched the attack unfold with horror. The final shots were fired some 20 minutes later, but the armed forces assault force did not declare victory until almost 16:00. We felt failure bitterly, believing that four months of work had all been for nothing. We were sure that the bulk of the hostages must have been killed, since the assault took so long. As reports filtered in, however, it emerged that most of the hostages had survived, to us a miracle. In the end, of the 72 hostages, only one died, although four others were wounded. In the operation, two commandos were killed and 10 badly wounded. All 14 terrorists died.

Commandos storming the Japanese residence

How had they accomplished this when experts from around the world said it couldn’t be done without massive losses among the hostages? In secret, the Peruvian army had build a full-size replica of the Japanese residence on a local army base, where 150 officers from the special forces had been practicing and refining assaults for weeks. In addition, the authorities were able to communicate clandestinely with some of the hostages, and on “D Day” told them to prepare for an assault at 15:20 by getting themselves up stairs without raising the suspicions of the terrorists, and behind some protection. The MRTA had gotten into the habit of gathering in the main dining room shortly after 15:00 to play table football. The commandos simply blew up the dining room at 13:20 from a tunnel below, killing or disabling probably half of the terrorists. Commandos simultaneously attacked the front door, emerged from tunnels to blast holes in the outer walls, or landed on the roof by helicopter. Also, when it came to the crunch, several of the young terrorists could not bring themselves to kill men that they had come to know and often admire. Fujimori played the assault as a major victory over terror, and his popularity soared in the immediate aftermath.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Terrorism For Dummies

Dear readers, this week comes part 3 of 5 in David Bickford's, "A Bloody Summer." This weekend, an inside look on Peruvian jails in 1997 and the inmate populations.

MRTA guerrilla training

During the off-and-on discussions between the terrorists and the Peruvian government, several times the MRTA expressed concern about the plight of their imprisoned comrades – shortly after the taking of the Japanese residence, all visiting rights to terrorists in jail were suspended by the government and any other of the limited privileges that the prisoners enjoyed in these stark institutions was curtailed. The Guarantors decided to form a sub-committee (I was chosen as the victim to lead the group) to visit the various prisons where MRTA members were being held. We were a small group consisting of myself, a Japanese diplomat, a Spanish nun, a Japanese doctor, a Peruvian doctor and another Canadian diplomat. We were to visit six prisons, and report back to the Guarantors on conditions within the prisons, including respect for human rights, as well as the health and well being of prisoners.

We started out well – sort of - in a minibus rented by the Japanese Embassy from “Mickey Mouse Tours”, which even had a picture of the smiling mouse on the side. The visit to one of the most notorious prisons in Lima, called Lurigancho, was extremely interesting. This was the prison in the late 1980s where there was an internal revolt and the army went in and killed hundreds of prisoners, mostly terrorists. There were four major wings, two of which contained hardened criminals and where the guards never went, and the others where convicted terrorists were held. We had ready access to prisoners, sampled their food, and were rather surprised that prisoner morale remained high given a very Spartan regime. We emerged from the prison to be surrounded by the media (mainly Japanese) who hounded us worse than the prisoners inside. The intrepid Mickey Mouse bus was unable to outrun the swarm of press vehicles and motorcycles and we arrived back in the Embassy to write our report with the press milling and shouting outside.

Lurigancho prison cell

We visited several medium security facilities, but the highlight (literally) was a high-altitude prison at 4,200 metres near Puno in southern Peru: Yanamayo. We arrived from Lima - almost deaf - on a Peruvian National Police Antonov 22 (Soviet 1960s equivalent of a C-130 Hercules). The prison we were visiting held most of the MRTA leadership. We wanted both to look at their welfare, and also try to convince them to instruct their colleagues in the Japanese residence to be more flexible in negotiations. One of the problems we had experienced was that the leaders in Yanamayo had given the terrorists in the Japanese residence their instructions, through intermediaries, prior to the assault. Although prisoners were, theoretically, held incommunicado in the high-altitude prisons, they were in contact with the outside world – we presumed through bribing guards to convey messages.

The first impressions of Yanamayo were forbidding. On a windswept hillside, the prison was a huge 4-floor cement block with no windows, with a few outbuildings. The complex was surrounded by two chain-link fences topped by razor wire, with armed soldiers every fifty metres between the two fences facing outward - presumably to deter any assault from outside. Signs indicated that outside the wire there were land mines. From inside we could hear shouting, slogans and chanting of patriotic mantras. The guards didn’t want us to go in, fearing a riot, but we insisted. With some trepidation we entered a cellblock. There were cells on all four sides, with bars across the front of the cells. Once they saw us, the MRTA immediately started shouting, banging on the bars – strangely the Shining Path prisoners were calm, and talked to us in a relaxed way. The MRTA appeared half crazed, including one whose photo I recognized as being a Chilean. I was extremely glad that there were stout bars between them and us. What I remember most though was the cold. It was intense and pierced to the bone. I shook hands with some of the prisoners whose hands were blue and appeared to have little feeling in them. They were four to a cell (about 3 by 3 metres), sleeping on concrete shelves with thin foam mattresses. They were allowed out to exercise for 30 minutes a day – but this “privilege” had been cancelled, along with visits and parcels from home. I found it hard to believe that they could maintain their militancy year-after-year under such conditions, but they had.

Yanamayo maximum security prison, Puno, Peru

Later we met in a small conference room with the leadership, who were calm, relaxed, but argumentative and not forthcoming. We got nowhere convincing them to introduce some flexibility in their negotiating position – after all, for them the whole purpose of taking high-level hostages was to gain their own release from jail. Nothing else mattered.  We later visited the hospital, where I sat down on a bed with a Shining Path guerrilla paralysed from the waist down. He admitted that he had injured himself while preparing a bomb. He told me he had received little rehabilitation at the prison, but felt he was treated better than a poor Peruvian with no access to medical assistance. I found the Shining Path much more reasonable than the MRTA. We also visited the kitchen where we tried Alpaca stew (mostly leg bones, but nonetheless hearty and tasty). We went back to Lima late in the day with splitting headaches from the change in altitude (Lima is just a few metres above sea level). 

Our final report served to reassure the terrorists in the Japanese residence that their colleagues were not being mistreated, and may have helped to build a better rapport between the terrorists and the Guarantors. On a personal level, we in the sub-group became good friends, and I grew to appreciate particularly the work ethic, professionalism, and good humour of my colleague from the Japanese diplomatic service, Kenji Hirata. While these visits were something of a sideline to the main negotiations, I learned that the MRTA leadership, even after years in jail and with little prospect of ever being released, remained militant, dedicated to their cause and with spirits unbroken – a daunting enemy.