By Raphael Bodewig
By January 2020 more than 4,5 million Venezuelans have fled their home country due to a severe humanitarian, economic and political crisis. Colombia and Venezuela share a large border and a history of bi-national migration. The conflict-ridden Colombia, struggling with armed conflict, inequality and an often impoverished countryside, was not really prepared for such an exodus. Yet, it has become the destination, transit route and home for millions of Venezuelans. An estimated 1,5 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia, more than half of them without proper documentation. Approximately 40.000 people cross the border daily.
On the Colombian interstate highway between the border town of Cúcuta and Bucaramanga, the crisis is as evident as it is acute. Since Venezuelan money has lost its value due to hyperinflation, the refugees can’t afford transportation and advance by walking the narrow roadside of the highway. For the majority, Bucaramanga is only a stop-over on their search for livable circumstances in cities like Bogotá, Quito or Lima. But it is an exhaustive stretch of 180 kilometers where the road ascends the steep Andes from almost sea level to an elevation of 3000 meters.
Barely 20 kilometers from the border crossing, in La Garita, thousands of Venezuelans stop, looking for a place to rest at the end of the first day’s march. The tiny and tranquil village of merely 20 buildings is sustained by the income the crossing highway generates. Here, Martha Alarcón runs a small service station. The store is meant to provide passing truckers and tourists with soft drinks and fast food. In recent years however, the main purpose of her business has changed: to provide shelter, first aid and a safe haven to refugees, while bolstering the hopes and spirits of the ones in need. We spoke to her about her work and her motivations.
It was in 2016, she tells us, when the first big groups of refugees started passing by on the highway. At that moment, a lot of famous and wealthy Venezuelans had already emigrated to Spain or the United States, meanwhile especially the poorer population was suffering from what would prove to be only the beginning of a severe and long-lasting crisis. For Martha Alarcón, there was never a doubt that she would attend the passing Venezuelans. “I get thirsty from walking 10 minutes in this heat. Why wouldn’t they have thirst, walking the whole day?” She was just getting started. Not only did the refugees suffer from food and medicine shortages in Venezuela but had travelled far on difficult and impassable terrain on their way to Colombia. “They came with sore, inflamed, sometimes even bloody feet. Others arrived with pregnancies, chronic diseases, allergies or diarrhea but were still forced to continue walking”. So, Martha Alarcon began providing the refugees with soups, water, first aid and antibiotics she bought from the local pharmacy.
The situation has not changed for the better since. While patching up a young man’s injured foot, she tells us: “Some days, we count more than 150 persons! Women have become the majority, the spouses, sisters of the ones ahead. Very young girls and children- it is a tragedy! Children who tell me about the lack of food, water and electricity at their homes. The situation in Venezuela is complicated. Most of the refugees come with political views. Maduro, Guaidó…. I try to stay out of that, but what I can tell is that it is getting worse and worse.”
Many refugees arrive exhausted and frustrated. But for the most, turning back is no option. Therefore, Martha Alarcón gives her best to prepare them for what lies ahead and give useful advice. “Save any money you have for the steepest part and always hide your cell phones!”, she tells two departing youngsters in a motherly caring way. The long way that lies ahead of them bears a lot of dangers, from sunstroke in the hotter areas to hypothermia and altitude sickness in the highlands. Then, refugees are especially vulnerable when sleeping without shelter, as there have been cases of theft, armed robbery and sexual violation along the highway.
In Martha Alarcón’s service station, there are letters and messages everywhere. Written On worthless Venezuelan bills or newspapers and hanging from the tin-roof, clipped to every wall and stacked in boxes to the roof. When we asked her about the meaning and purpose of those, Martha Alarcón explains that she asks everybody to leave behind a letter or message. “Most of the refugees are parents, searching better living conditions to provide the best for their children. Just imagine, that in the future, a son visits us and will be able to see, what his mom and dad have endured for him. I like to think that one day, this place will become a museum.”
Asked for a letter of special value to her, she begins searching in her boxes and hands us a letter from Yasmin, a 15-year-old girl. Yasmin was one of the ten-thousands that have passed by here and left a letter. She travelled with her cousin and was in the seventh month of her pregnancy. They were heading towards Bogotá, more than 500 kilometers away. Martha offered them to stay and give birth in safe surroundings, but the next morning they had already left, departing by foot. They left behind this note:
“We are Venezuelans and on our way to Bogotá, always with god’s blessing. We are here in Colombia to fight for our luck, from day to day, driven by the wish to provide something for our families. God knows that in us, this country receives two honest and decent beings. We will always be grateful for the wonderful people we have met here, like you Martha. Thank you for your kindness and honesty. We have no words to describe the way you took care of us.“
A while later, Martha Alarcón received a WhatsApp message. It was a picture of Yasmin’s newborn baby from Bogotá.
Illustration: Smilla Lind
Raphael Bodewig is studying Peace and Conflict Studies in Uppsala. He is a strong advocate of human rights and social- & environmental justice. Having lived in Bolivia, Colombia and Cuba, he is convinced and committed to the importance of working with our world’s affected and disadvantaged. He just arrived in Uppsala and is looking forward to getting to know the place & it’s people. Spends his time doing fika and bouldering. Most welcome to join!