Behind the story: report on the exodus of Venezuela comes home


The roadside shoulder from the Venezuelan border to the Colombian city of Bucaramanga is full of empty tuna cans, broken shoes and plastic bottles.

Hundreds of Venezuelans flee to Colombia every day to begin this 125-mile journey on foot. They are known as hikers, or walkers, and they are the last wave in an exodus that is only growing as the economic crisis in your country deepens.

As I have family in Venezuela, the crisis is personal. In 2018, two of my cousins ​​spent four days on buses, carrying little more than some clothes and bread to start over in Peru. In WhatsApp messages, they described looking out the bus window and seeing others walking on the side of the road.

I wanted to know more about that trip, what the travelers were thinking and feeling in real time. The only way would be to walk with them, not for an hour or a day, but for the first segment of what for many would be a much longer trip. Then photographer Marcus Yam and I flew to Colombia.

When most of the travelers arrive at the fork in Bucaramanga, they head west towards Medellín and Cali, or south towards the capital, Bogotá.

Marcus and I walked with the migrants for most of the trip, but unlike most of them, we slept in shelters and ate at least one full meal a day.

We had hired a driver to stay close to us, but out of sight, in case we had problems or had to step back or get ahead to interview certain people. That felt bad when many around us were struggling to cover the distance on foot and could have used a ride.

But we were there to cover the story, not to be part of it. Even so, there were constant temptations to break our roles as mere observers, and we did it on some occasions.

One of them arrived on the third day of the hike, when we met dozens of migrants waiting in the rain for the Red Cross to distribute food and clothing. It was there that I met Josue Moreno, 16.

Josue shivered in a polo shirt and jeans. He and a friend shared a thin gray hoodie, exchanging wearing it every few hours.

Red Cross workers demanded that everyone hand over identification as a placeholder in the line, saying that prevented people from duplicating donations. But Josue’s wallet had been stolen at the border, so it had been rejected.

I approached one of the Red Cross officials and asked him why no exceptions were made for people like Josue. Many travelers had similar stories of robberies.

The worker considered it, then added Josue to the signal. He received his first meal in more than a day and a blanket of wool.

Another moment was our last day of hiking when we met a truck driver who charged migrants 1,000 pesos, about 30 cents, for an hour and a half trip through the dreaded Berlin Paramo, a plateau at 10,500 feet above the level from the sea where freezing temperatures are common.

Most people raised their money and climbed to the back. Yosmary Aular and her 13-year-old son and niece were the last ones left. He begged the driver, wiping his tears as he explained that he had no money and was afraid of being trapped again during the night in the cold.

The driver refused. As he prepared to close the truck, he told Marcus and me to get on. We doubt and then we look at each other in silence. I told the driver that we would give up our places for Yosmary and the children.

“Okay,” he relented. “All enter.”

In the months since that trip, I have kept in touch with many of the people I met.

Leidy Paredes stayed near Bucaramanga and found a job in a restaurant.

A few weeks ago, Ana María Fonseca Pérez was in a Colombian town near the border with Ecuador. He still hopes to meet his son in Peru.

And Yosmary arrived in Quevedo, a city in central Ecuador. She has struggled to find work and is desperately nostalgic.

“Here in Ecuador, the situation is also difficult,” he told me. “Life is not easy”.

We don’t know what happened to so many of the other people we met on the long walk.


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