The Cemetery of Turbo

The Eastern block of the municipal cemetery of Turbo. Photo: Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to visit and pay respects at the municipal cemetery of Turbo, a port town in the Colombian Caribbean. Scattered between the blocks of graves are a number of cement tombs: here lie the remains of refugees who drowned trying to reach Panama, driven by a dream of eventually making it to the United States.

By these tombs, there are no flowers. There are no visitors. There are just nameless slabs, marked with a date and two black letters: NN (Latin for Nomen nescio, name unknown).

These were people. People from Somalia, Syria, Bangladesh, Haiti, Eritrea, Mali, Iran, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal, Pakistan, and Cuba. People, whose families stay awake at night imagining where they might be, wondering when the first message from America might arrive.

The refugees who rest in Turbo’s cemetery are some of the thousands who have attempted to cross the Darien Gap, a vast, impenetrable, roadless expanse of jungle that blankets the border between Colombia and Panama.

This is perilous territory. The route refugees rely on maps over one of the world’s major drug arteries, a corridor largely controlled by paramilitary forces and the 57th front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

To navigate the corridor, refugees must rely on smugglers and human trafficking networks, many of which are controlled by the Úsuga clan, a narco-paramilitary organisation infamous for its scale and brutality. Each boat crossing costs thousands of dollars. Refugees who cannot afford to pay must work as “drug mules”, carrying packages of cocaine across the border. A cheaper route takes refugees by foot through the dense rainforest and swamps of Los Katíos National Park. Paramilitaries and guerrillas control this area, and there are no known trails. Many refugees end up with malaria, lost, dehydrated, snake-bitten, or in the hands of bandits, and never make it through alive.

Over the last years, Turbo and the Gulf of Urabá have become the bottlenecks through which most refugees and migrants pass to get to North America. The rate of trafficking is growing at an alarming rate, and yet there are no humanitarian organisations, volunteering networks or international bodies here to provide support to those passing through.

As the frontiers of the world fortify, and the drivers of displacement (war, persecution chronic poverty, climate violence) deepen, more people are taking to the most extreme and dangerous migration routes in the world. Unless we rapidly build a more compassionate politics around human movement, and grant safe passage to all those in flight, then our seas and borderlands will become little more than mass graves, echoes of the dark waters of Urabá.

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