As thousands of footsore caminantes walk from the Venezuelan border to towns and cities in Colombia – and beyond – in search of food, medicine and shelter, we speak to some of the arrivals in Bogotá.
“We get food and sometimes a ride,” says one caminante on the Autopista Norte, just outside of Bogotá. At the city’s main bus station rolos are bringing food, blankets, clothes and hot coffee to the families gathered in the park outside. Nearby, a church group has set up a halfway house to give temporary shelter to the most vulnerable families, and cure foot blisters.
Bogotá is no stranger to footsore travellers who arrive clutching a few bundles of their worldly possessions. For decades, the capital has drawn in the destitute and displaced from strife within the country’s own borders. Then came a trickle of Venezuelans seeking a better life as their home country fell into ruin. That trickle has now become a flood, as migrants flee what many described to The Bogotá Post this week as a ‘total collapse’ of their lives back home.
As the regime in Caracas denies the crisis – declaring the exodus of its own people as ‘propaganda’ – we went out in Bogotá and Soacha to talk to Venezuelans and hear their stories.
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The tales were of hardship. Leaving loved ones behind. Walking the cold páramo. Hunger and sleeping by the roadside. Being robbed of their few possessions on the way. Some complained of harassment by the police. Many had suffered persecution back in Venezuela.
We were also struck by the cheerfulness and good humour of many migrants. Many had a good word for the Colombians who had helped on the way with gifts of food, clothes or a ride to the next town. Others – those who had been here a while – had temporary residence permits. Some had found work, and even linked up to the health and social security system.
For most new arrivals though, life is precarious – such as those living under plastic sheets by the bus terminals. One youth we met had a knife wound in the stomach. Without any idea how to access health care, he was begging for cash to buy antibiotics.
Some were professionals and traders who had been rejected by overly rigid recruitment processes and forced to sell snack on street corners. Some told us how spiteful Venezuelan border guards had ripped up their passports and other essential documents as they crossed over to Colombia.
Many had no clear plan what to do next or where to go. Maybe Peru, where the rumours are they can find work, or Ecuador, where they can earn dollars. Some said they could not stay in Bogotá ‘because the city is already full’, so they’ll move on.
What everyone agreed was that right now, anywhere is better than home.
Randy is from the town of Nirgua in Yaracuy where he worked washing cars. He has walked for ten days across the Colombian Andes from Cúcuta. We caught up with him just outside Bogotá, on foot with two friends from the same town.
“We left because there was no food, the markets were empty, even in the field everything had been eaten. We travelled to find hope, but it’s been a hard journey, very cold on the páramo, and walking, walking, walking. We sleep by the roadside.”
“With no money, we beg for food. We are not used to begging, in Venezuela I had work and looked after my family. I feel uncomfortable asking for things. But many people have been good to us.”
Carlos won’t tell us his real name, or let us take his picture, but he explains his role in an uprising which forced him to flee to Colombia to seek asylum. The former policeman bussed and walked to Bogotá after two murder attempts in Cúcuta – he claims by Venezuelan agents – and he has three bullet wounds. With his pregnant wife he is an ‘ambulante’, street seller, in Bogotá.
“I was a policeman so saw first-hand the oppression. They were killing students and civilians, so I put on a mask and joined the resistance. We got arms – we had to, they were shooting us – and went underground. Many of my friends were killed. It’s a war. When the food ran out, I crossed the border. Over the years I helped many Colombians to find work in Venezuela. But here I am now but not allowed to work, so I sell on the streets. That’s not fair, Colombia should let us work. Even here in Bogotá, I’m not safe, the Venezuelan state has agents everywhere.”
Saly is from Caracas, where she was in her first semester of studying medicine. She has been in Colombia for two months after taking a bus from Caracas to San Antonio with a friend, looking for work, but struggling because it is difficult for undocumented foreigners. After that, she walked the rest of the way, sleeping on the roads between Cúcuta and Pamplona.
“I came here because I needed to find a job. I have a toddler, and in Venezuela, it’s five or six times the minimum wage to buy a bag of diapers. Of course it isn’t much, but I have been able to survive with my grandparents’ retirement money and both of my parents are working. We were only able to buy food for days at a time. At the border there are groups of Venezuelans waiting for you on the other side. I have been let down by some Colombian families with fake promises, but I have also received food, soda, money and sometimes a place to sleep. The journey between Cúcuta and Pamplona was very scary because we had to sleep on the cliffs of mountains.”
Fiona is originally from Port Elizabeth in South Africa, but left in 2006. Her adopted home in Venezuela was the city of El Tigre, where she worked as a housekeeper. She speaks fluent English, Spanish and French. She crossed Colombia walking from Cúcuta to get to Salitre in Bogotá, at times sleeping in bushes and in safe houses. She came here with her Colombian husband, and she is hoping to find work as a translator, but realises the difficulty of being able to obtain work with her South African passport.
“We left because of the crisis. There is no food and a lot of oppression. The government says they are doing things for the people but they only care for themselves and don’t understand the needs of the people. I have felt freedom at times, but it is not enough, we don’t receive any support from the [Colombian] state. We have been threatened by people who say it’s a bad image for the neighbourhood and there can’t be more people here. I will stay here because I need a job. The problem is not solved with food. I hope one day that I can see my family again in South Africa.”
Hailing from Caracas, José was studying mechanical engineering but is now selling caramels and bolivar bills on the Transmilenio and on the street.
“I just couldn’t stay there. I needed food. I stayed one month in Cúcuta, waiting for a ride to Bogotá. Finally, a driver who was heading to Bogotá offered to take me and he also gave me food. The first days in Bogotá I found a job as a construction assistant. Once that job ended I found a job on the Transmilenio. I was selling chocolates on one day on the Transmilenio when I bumped into a man who got really irritated and yelled. I apologised and then told him I was just doing my job. I tried to be nice. He said that if we don’t want to be treated badly, we should just leave, we aren’t wanted here. I am waiting until I make enough to pay half the fee to get to Ecuador.”
Alexy is from the region of Yaracuy, a place where he said, “you don’t see money anymore”. He was a construction worker before the crisis, and after hitching a ride from a stranger near the border, he walked most of the way to Bogotá with his uncle, who said that God would have a plan for them if they made it past the páramo. We spoke to Alexy at a camp near the bus station in Salitre.
“Back then, Venezuela was a very different place. After the government confiscated the cement companies, they transformed them into criminal organisations. They would open a 10kg bag of cement, and sell smaller bags of it at higher prices. When we were travelling across the páramo, we started to lose feeling in our toes. I have been in Bogotá for four days and I have been living rough, and I can’t find a job. Here, it’s not a permanent situation, we have no toilet, and we sleep on the ground. The Evangelical churches come here to donate things sometimes. The police usually come at night. I am waiting for a miracle.”