Bolivar bridge: The start of an arduous journey
Just a few weeks ago, thousands of opposition demonstrators wearing blue vests emblazoned with the words "Coalition for Help and Freedom" stormed from Colombia towards the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, accompanying trucks carrying aid supplies from the United States. On the other side of the bridge that bears the name of the Venezuelan statesman who led several South American states to secede from the Spanish Empire, Venezuela's military was ready and waiting. The bridge became the scene and symbol of the power struggle between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido. Dozens of people were injured and television crews broadcast footage of the incident around the world.
One month later, the bridge that separates Colombia and Venezuela is practically devoid of people. Only those over the age of 55, mothers with children, students and disabled people are allowed to cross the bridge from the Venezuelan side. Nevertheless, thousands of people enter Colombia every day using an illegal "trocha" crossing several meters underneath the bridge, trudging across the border through undergrowth and knee-deep rivers.
On the Venezuelan side, armed gangs called "colectivos" demand protection money, threatening violence if people refuse to pay. Fear of rape makes the "trochas" a dangerous option for women in particular. But nothing has stopped the flow of refugees from the country: Hunger, the need for medicine and general economic despair are too great.
Believing in a miracle
How does Colombia deal with the fact that 1.2 million Venezuelans have already entered the country and thousands more cross the border every day? The plight of the Venezuelans today reminds many people in Colombia of an earlier time, when Colombians fled to Venezuela in order to escape internal conflict, and how they were almost always received with open arms. Now is the time to give something back, many say.
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Venezuelan refugees infected with HIV who can no longer afford the medicine they need can turn to an aid center in the city of Cucuta. The diocese of Cucuta runs a soup kitchen just five minutes from the Simon Bolivar bridge. What started with 200 bowls of soup a day in 2017 has become daily handouts of 4,000 lunches. "It is the work of God, a miracle," says diocesan priest Jose David Canas.
The World Food Program provides the food, but the soup kitchen is working to its limits all the same. Some 120 volunteers keep the business aloft by cooking, cleaning and washing dishes. The volunteers all feel they are part of something special. "Just today, a Venezuelan girl thanked me repeatedly because she hadn't eaten for four days," says Jose David Canas.
Seeking medical help
At the Las Margaritas health center just around the corner, Jesus Gonzalez is seated in the waiting room with his wife and young daughter. The family comes here because, says Gonzalez, the treatment for their daughter is first class. Over the past six months, the Venezuelan family must have made the trip across Simon Bolivar bridge 10 times, he adds, traveling from their home in the town of Berlin, which is a 90 minute car drive from the border. He says taking the child to a doctor back home is not an option: "If your child has a fever, the hospitals in Venezuela won't treat you unless the fever is extremely high."
Every day, the staff take care of 100 to 120 children at Las Margaritas health center. It takes some families as long as 12 hours to get there from Venezuela, where medicine is either lacking or far too expensive. Insulin and medication for respiratory diseases are in high demand at the clinic.
Open 24/7: The Red Cross station
The first people to flee Venezuela belonged to the upper class. They left the country by plane, headed for the US and Europe. Next the middle class fled by bus to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Now poorer Venezuelans are fleeing, often on foot.
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The small Red Cross station on highway 55 in Los Patios, just a few kilometers walk from the Simon Bolivar bridge, is open 24 hours a day. Wearing sandals, some refugees plan to continue on foot to Bucaramanga, says Red Cross worker Edwin Alfredo — almost 200 kilometers (125 miles), a distance that can be covered in less than five hours by car but takes 47 hours walking, not counting breaks. In addition, the refugees carry heavy supplies, as well as young children. The biggest challenge is the climb to the Paramo plateau, at a height of more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). "People have died because they completely underestimated the journey and didn't bring any warm clothes," Alfredo says.
He and the other Red Cross workers make sure to give the Venezuelan refugees maps with detailed information on where to find the next medical supply station. The refugees can make free phone calls in Los Patios, top off their water supplies and have the blisters on their feet treated. Even for those people with enough funds left, purchasing a bus ticket rather than embarking on the exhausting and dangerous walk is often not an option. "People need a valid identity card to travel by bus in Colombia," says Alfredo. "But the Venezuelans who are here illegally often don't have one, and the Colombian government does not provide free buses in order not to further support the refugee movement."
The above report was compiled during a research trip organized by the United Nations Association of Germany in Columbia and Peru.