Deivis, 50, from Valencia, fled Venezuela because “Every time the colectivos (paramilitary forces loyal to Maduro) kill an opposition member, the gangs from the opposition kill a colectivo. I have a family. I’m not getting involved with the protests anymore. It’s too dangerous.”
“I just want a better life”
José is 18, from Portueguesa. He grins big-mouthed smiles constantly, showing off his mouthful of green, plastic braces. He “shaves” with tweezers and a tiny mirror every morning and ironically jokes about how easy the trek is.
“This is nothing.” he says during a break in the shade on a particularly hard day. “I have so many blisters on my feet that I don’t even feel the road anymore. You girls done resting yet?”
4 million Venezuelans have fled their collapsing country. It is the biggest migration in South American history and on pace to surpass Syria as the biggest mass-movement of humans since WWII.
The main corridor of immigration runs from Cucuta, on the Venezuelan border in Colombia, to the capital, Bogota. Bogota is where the Venezuelan Diaspora begins.
I joined a group of refugees at the border and walked 672 kilometers, climbing 3500 meters along the way.
The passage took over a week. We walked and hitchhiked the main corridor of immigration from Venezuela to the capital and points beyond. We rode in the back of a truck transporting barbed wire and sheet metal through bumpy Colombian back roads, hoping not to be impaled by errant scraps. We slept in the freezing cold huddled together under space blankets. We traded origin stories and our plans for the future.
The route of the immigration winds through freezing mountain passes, dusty tropical plains and temperate rain-forest. Most of those making the trip do so only with backpacks and blankets.
What follows is an essay of their travails. It isn't journalism in the classical sense. But its 100% truth. Sometimes the truth doesn’t fit within the confines of the academic journalistic style. The stories of those fleeing are incredible and at times heart-breaking. I beg your permission to deviate from the standard 800-word piece of statistics and impersonal facts, because emotion can sometimes be just as true as facts.
The Road to Bogota is at times a trail of deep sadness. But those fleeing don’t complain. Nor do they ask your pity. Quite the contrary in fact- the anguish is carried within. They wear smiles.
The Venezuelan people are incredibly resilient, but what stood out to me the most was that even in the darkest of circumstances they have time for a raunchy joke and a big smile. I was constantly taken off guard by the humor. It takes the edge off of a bleak situation.
Humor is the weapon with which they battle a world that is crumbling around them.
Deveis Hernandez and I share the most conversation during the trip. Perhaps because the rest of our group is so young. He is from a poor family.
He was a firm believer in the Bolivarian Revolution. In 1998 he took the streets with the hopes of breaking the elite ruling class’s firm and exploitative grip on power.
“To see Chavez speak, it was something else. Something I can’t describe. He clearly wanted to help the people.” he says.
But he has since become disillusioned. “Maduro is a thief,” he mutters one night. “Everything that was noble about our revolution, he sold. And now he murders the people.”
“I don’t trust the opposition either. They don’t want to make things better. They just want power.” he says, “Something is wrong with Venezuela. It has become a nation of thieves. Something in our people makes us incapable of working together.”
The rest of the group is younger, between 18 and 22. They have only known two presidents in their lives. They are rabidly anti-socialist and blame Communism for what they see as lives without opportunity.
They are very curious about Brooklyn, where I lived for 15 years. They only know the glamorized version from the movies, the pretty version without the ugly warts, and to them it seems magical.
Ivan, 22 from Portuguese dropped out of high-school. “Why should I go to college?” he asks. “Doctors don’t even make enough to buy food.”
He is headed to Lima, Peru. Possibilities have dried up for immigrants in Colombia. The majority work in under-the-table positions for cut-throat rates.
One million two-hundred thousand Venezuelans are estimated to live in Colombia, and despite the being the last remaining country that officially welcomes them without passports, xenophobia is increasing.
“Go back to Venezuela!” a passing truck yelled at our group on the outskirts of Bogota. “You idiots need to get rid of Maduro! We don’t need more Venezuelans here!”
Those that stay in Colombia to build new lives face difficult challenges obtaining legal work as well as resentment from the citizens of a country strained by supporting them.
A series of informal shelters has evolved along the route to house and feed those passing. Each night the group slept huddled together, usually under the open sky. Hundreds pass each kitchen and shelter daily- all headed to Bogota and points beyond.
The road is dotted with caminantes, the term used to describe the flow of people leaving Venezuela on foot. One encounters them walking, taking breaks in the shade or soliciting rides from passing trucks. The road is a long and winding trail of refugees.
When the shelters are too far apart to reach in an 11 hour day of hiking, they sleep in the streets or in the countryside. At times, the road is brutal, especially for those with children or whom are pregnant.
For the caminiantes, one’s backpack becomes everything. It is used as a pillow when one sleeps. It is a mobile pantry. It holds what little food one can carry- a can of tuna and some crackers, or perhaps some hard and dry bread. It houses a blanket and perhaps a change of socks- socks that slowly become more foul with each passing day.
It is a cushion to sit upon when one stops in the shade to take a rest. It is the uniform of the caminante . It signals one’s identity to fellow travelers, to passing trucks and to strangers who may be kind enough to help.
It is the only link to home one still carries, and the most common backpack is the state-issued tricolor- the flag of Venezuela. The majority of those fleeing carry the flag of their crumbling country on their backs into foreign lands. The caminantes may have left their loved ones behind, or their hearts, but there is still the backpack.
Just as the traveler carries the backpack, the backpack sustains the traveler. Life becomes impossible without it- one cannot carry water, food or sleep. To lose the backpack is to lose the very last thread of both home and the means of survival. It is a sin. It would be demoralizing. It would be…well.
I never saw anyone lose their backpack. It stays close.
A Family affair
One sees countless children making the trek as well. A year ago it was single men, looking for work. Now it is entire families, even pregnant women and elderly.
The most dangerous region of the journey is through Paramore Berlin, where temperatures drop below zero. New mothers carry infants through the region as they walk, step by step, towards new lives- often carrying little more than hope.
Many of the women who are pregnant spoke of leaving Venezuela because they couldn’t imagine giving birth in hospitals that lack even basic medicine and antibiotics.
“To give birth in a Venezuelan hospital is more dangerous than doing it at home.” one young woman told me. Infections and complications are common in hospitals working without even basic supplies.
Doors are closing
Daily, more countries close their doors to the millions of Venezuelans fleeing. Ecuador no longer accepts those without passports, nor does Chile or Peru.
But obtaining a passport is an impossible task. It costs $200 officially, but that’s not counting the bribes one has to pay to actually navigate the process. Since most of the country works for $6 a month, only the rich can afford the price.
And the only rich people left in Venezuela are those on Maduro’s payroll.
A Displaced People
An entire generation has fled Venezuela, more than 15% of the population. They tell stories of food insecurity, rampant criminality, corruption, violence, extreme poverty and disillusionment with an authoritarian government. No one leaves because they want to.
The diaspora settles around the world, in the places that they are able- to try and start new lives. But as the crisis continues, their options become more limited. Neighboring South American countries are limiting their access, fearful of being overwhelmed with refugees.
For now, Colombia has kept it’s border open to Venezuelans. It is the only country in the world to do so. And though the immigration is a pendulum, with some returning home with money they have saved, the net amount of those entering Colombia daily is estimated to be in the hundreds.
The number of those who have fled will surpass 5 million this year. Colombia is not a rich nation. It cannot absorb them all.
Daveis found work in Bogota sorting scrap metal for a recycling plant. He has finally saved enough money to send for his wife and youngest daughter. He earns next to nothing. But I have never received a phone call from someone so grateful, so happy.
“Brother!” he yells at me through my phone “They’re coming! It’s all arranged! We have the bus tickets and everything!”
Thanks to his heroic efforts they wont have to walk to Bogota like he did.
I hang up the phone and look around my comfortable apartment in Cucuta. These people are stronger than me. Their resilience is amazing to behold. And it convinces me I need to work harder telling the story of what is really happening here. The world needs to know.
And Deveis doesn’t use twitter.