BRIDGE OF HOPE
Under the blistering midday sun, the Simon Bolivar International Bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela strains under the ceaseless footsteps and trundling wheels of suitcases. The new arrivals, many carrying their last worldly possessions, barely turn their back to watch the hills in Venezuela slowly sink out of sight and instead walk purposefully towards a new horizon.
The Colombian border town of Cucuta represents the waxing and waning of the two countries’ fortunes. In decades past, it was a last border stop for Colombians, escaping armed violence and economic stagnation, moving to their more peaceful and prosperous northern neighbour to find work. Now their former hosts are making the reverse journey.
The bridge used to receive vehicles but now is solely for foot traffic; such is the dramatic increase in Venezuelans departing their homeland.
One of the travellers is Yusmil Carmona. With no money left, the 18-year-old sold most of her hair in Cucuta for $10 – a common practice among migrant women upon arrival in Colombia – but that was spent quickly on food and rent. She is determined to ‘walk until we can’t walk any more’ but she and her brother will stay close to a group of fellow migrants they met on the way.
The rumours of roaming bandits that rob and assault migrants on the road has worried her, and the climatic conditions more so.
“We heard that people have died on the paramo, and we don’t even have the right kind of clothes.”
The Paramo de Berlin – the bitterly cold mountain plateau further up the road – is chief among the fears of migrants progressing through northern Colombia. Soaring, craggy peaks line twisting roads rising to over 4,000 metres above sea level, the temperature on the forbidding tundra drops to several degrees below zero and rumours swirl among migrants of people frozen to death on the road, although the Colombian Red Cross have not received any confirmed cases of this happening.
No other option
Not all in Cucuta intend to take on ‘el paramo’ or embark on a lengthy journey. A significant proportion travel across the border for the day to buy and sell goods or get medical consultations or prescription drugs.
Wiping his brow after a long shift, Dr. John Edison Mayoral takes a quick respite in an air-conditioned mobile unit at the Red Cross health station in La Parada Growing up in Putumayo on the Ecuador border, Dr. Mayoral has experience working in areas under control of armed groups where government health workers were forbidden to enter.
“Before, I helped people who always had difficulties but here I’m helping people who used to have something and now have nothing. I often have to play the role of psychologist – they come here to let out their frustrations, they cry, they feel depressed, they don’t know what to do, they want to stay in their own country, but they have no other option to leave because they have nothing to eat.
Wherever they are heading, people often arrive with a host of ailments. “Mothers are presenting their children suffering from vomiting, fever, diarrhoea and dehydration. I often advise migrants to rest for a day or two when they come here, but many just take the medicine and leave.”
Due to tightened border controls, migrants entering Colombia officially must present either a valid passport or migratory card. Many from Venezuela do not have valid documentation, and report that new passports are expensive and laborious to apply for due to bureaucracy and shortages of paper and ink.
These measures have seen an increase in the numbers of migrants entering Colombia through trochas – unofficial dirt trails – many of which are under control of armed gangs, which have been accused of trafficking vulnerable migrants. From the Simon Bolivar bridge, distant figures can be seen on the banks of the Tichara river, cautiously wading into the water to cross.
Outside a forested entrance to a trocha on the road to downtown Cucuta, small groups of migrants scurry out, fearful of being spotted by police. Diego, a food smuggler, emerges from the undergrowth, damp from the waist down and holding aloft a box bursting with ripe avocados.
“The crossing normally takes 10-15 minutes on a good day but it’s always dangerous. When the river rises, people can drown and when the rival gangs fight, we get caught in the crossfire of gun battles.”
The road to Bucaramanga
On the outskirts of the city, at a rest stop run by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), dusk falls as a group of over thirty migrants debate their options. The autumn heat in Cucuta can reach 30 degrees Celsius, so some elect to travel at night and rest in shade during the day, though this option is not without risks.
As the road slowly begins to rise out of the city, houses begin to fade into the distance and the scale of the journey dawns. Though vast sections of the way are without any sign of houses or shops, some cars slow down to give rides or hand out sandwiches and water to the walking groups. Some Colombians are reminded of the times when they were forced to flee, arriving in a foreign land uncertain on the future.
On the road to Bucaramanga, finding a normal place to sleep beyond abandoned buildings and shop awnings is a distant dream. But a small network of citizen-run shelters is beginning to emerge at key points along the route.
At the entrance to the bustling university town of Pamplona, 2,500 metres above sea level, Marta Duque has thrown open her cosy wooden house to weary travellers. Over a year ago, Duque begun to see bedraggled groups of migrants huddling under her garage roof and bathing in the stream opposite her house and felt an urge to provide help.
“In the winter it was mainly guys, but in the spring many more women, some pregnant, old people, disabled, arrived so I needed to act. I have seen people with HIV, cancer patients, people going into hypothermic shock, so we get out the hairdryer and wrap them in blankets and give them hot meals. I work from five in the morning until midnight, but it makes me happy to help them out.”
Leaning on a wall outside Marta’s house, Yusmil, the 18-year-old woman who sold her hair, has managed to make some progress since Cucuta, as the group elected that she and another woman took a ride in a truck with all the suitcases on board, while the rest followed on foot.
“We are worried, we hope they show up. I stayed up until 2am last night just in case they arrived. A group that just came saw them sleeping in an abandoned shack on the road further back.”
‘Without any shoes’
Most migrants have already sold their mobile phones to raise funds for the trip and therefore keeping in contact with fellow travellers is an anxious exercise. The shelter managers share information through WhatsApp groups and can help field enquiries for migrants who have been split from their group.
High up above the city at a Colombian Red Cross rest stop near a gas station, the harsh realities of the journey begin to bite. Under a plastic awning, some migrants lie wrapped in duvets, some shiver in hoodies and shorts. Venezuela is much warmer than Colombia, and many migrants on the road have never needed the kind of clothing necessary to insulate against the Andean mountain chill. Some are wearing flip flops. One man bound for Ecuador, Alfonso, displays a pair of battered trainers in his bag which he is saving for when he arrives.
“I won’t be able to get a job without any shoes!” He smiles.
Young volunteer Xiomara Carvajal from the Colombian Red Cross helps her colleagues dismantle the plastic awning for the night. She explains:
“They can’t sleep here because the owner of the gas station doesn’t allow it. It’s dangerous because sometimes they sleep inside trucks that are parked here.”
Despite months of working with migrants, Carvajal is still shocked by what she encounters:
“They arrive in very poor conditions and sometimes we have to refer them to the local hospital. We get lots of older people who are dehydrated when they arrive, they look as if they can go no further. There are also lots of pregnant women, some even bleeding. It can be very alarming for us.”
The corkscrewing roads from Pamplona to Bucamaranga is a 3-to-4-hour drive, or a journey of days on foot. As the treeless mountain plateau opens up, the bitter wind whips across scrubland and rocky outcrops. The Colombian Red Cross have begun mobile patrols in pickup trucks to distribute water and energy-rich snacks and administer first aid but also to give advice and pep talks for the trickiest part of the road ahead.
Victor Leon, 26, a construction worker from Valencia, rubs his hands together.
“Last night we all slept huddled together in an alleyway. It is far too cold here; my hands are burning from frostbite. I never experienced temperatures like this in my life, I come from a town where it’s about 20 degrees every day!”
As the mist clears and the road begins to finally descend, Bucaramanga reveals itself with a sea of twinkling lights. The thrill of going downhill towards civilisation restores migrants’ spirits, but for most it is merely the beginning of another chapter.
Juan Juarez, 28, sits on a wall outside the Las Aguas park at the entrance to the city as his son Santiago runs rings around him. Juan smiles:
“For him it’s a big adventure, he even started to learn how to ask for rides on the road.”
It’s been several days of hiking with Santiago sitting atop his shoulders, but Juan was relieved when they got a lift in a truck across the paramo, the part of the journey he was dreading the most. In the middle of boarding one ride, he became separated from his suitcase – with both their clothes and, crucially, his passport – that a fellow Venezuelan was carrying for him. Now he waits in hope that the man arrives soon. Looking into the distance, Juan remarks:
“I know I have to get used to this. We are probably going to be away for a long time.”