From the Photographer — ‘Get me back to Caracas’: desperate Venezuelans leave lockdown in Bogotá

Arete photographer, Keoma Zec, writes about his experiences documenting the homeward journeys of Venezuelans from Bogotá. For many Venezuelans living in Colombia, fleeing the COVID-19 lockdown to walk over 500km through the extreme conditions of the Andes, looks like their best hope for survival.

A Venezuelan family takes a break outside of Bogota, Colombia on their journey home to Cucuta, Venezuela on the 3rd of May 2020. © Keoma Zec

Back in early April when the lockdown had just started, Colombia like every other country on the planet was anxiously waiting to see what the virus would do. After two weeks of waiting, I ventured out with my friend — fellow journalist Bram Ebus to the highway leaving Bogotá.

We had heard that hundreds of Venezuelans had decided to leave the city, and even the country, on foot because of the measures imposed because of Coronavirus, to return to their home country. Why? Because of the lockdown.

Since 2016 Colombia has seen a steady influx of Venezuelan migrants looking for better lives in Colombia. It is estimated that 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants came to Colombia, the majority of whom are working in informal industries. This usually means they have very few savings and so a few days of no work means no food on the table.

Venezuelans walk past a military post in Bogota, Colombia as they begin their journey back to Venezuela on the 3rd of May 2020. © Keoma Zec
A Venezuelan child pokes their head out of the cart normally used for collecting recyclable materials. His family are embarking on a journey back to Venezuela, pictured outside Bogota, Colombia, on the 7th of May 2020. © Keoma Zec

As we ventured out to the highway leaving the capital city of Colombia, we instantly noticed lots of people walking. We ran into many groups of Venezuelans, mainly families with kids and they all had the same response.

They weren’t able to afford rent anymore so they had no choice but to go back. Inter-city transport had been put on hold — which is still the case four months later — so many people had just started to walk back.

To give you an idea of this challenge, Bogotá is at 2559 metres in altitude (which is higher than any ski resort in the European Alps) and is surrounded by the Andes mountain range. The walk to the Venezuelan border town Cucutá can take between 3 and 5 weeks and over 500 mountainous kilometres, and that is only to the border. Over the weeks working on this project, I met people who had walked from Peru, through Bogotá, towards Caracas. A journey that is 2500 kilometres long and would take months. This journey goes from freezing cold at high altitudes to blistering heat nearing the Venezuelan border.

A young Venezuelan man, having left everything behind, rests from his 500km barefoot journey back home to Venezuela, outside Bogota, Colombia on the 7th of May 2020. © Keoma Zec

After talking to many groups of people, listening to their stories and taking their photos, I decided I had to do something. Not only to get the story out, which ended up being published in The New Humanitarian and with Crisis Group, but I decided to tap into my own network of friends in Europe and gather some donations to help these people out. This is obviously far from a long term solution to a large and complicated problem, but at least I could help a few people.

I managed to raise around £1800 and started looking for other people to help me. A Dutch friend of mine, who runs a charity, decided to help out, as well as a new friend who owns a vegan restaurant and was willing to cook fresh meals. So far, we have made 250 vegan meals and taken them out to the people, as well as 250 big bags of food for families in need. We ended up driving out of the city looking for people who were walking. We handed them meals and other food that they could take with them on their long walk, as well as some blankets we received as donations.

Three months down the line, the problem hasn’t developed — nor has it been solved. Venezuelans still are walking back. The Colombian government have decided to prolong the quarantine until August 1st and cases are now hitting record highs every day for the last few weeks. This obviously puts many people in increasingly difficult positions as cases rise and the lockdown tightens, forcing people to stay inside and stop working.

An estimated 100,000 Venezuelans have returned home now, via the border town of Cucutá which is now a big problem in itself. Thousands of Venezuelans end up by the border not being allowed to cross home because of Coronavirus. Only 300 people a day are allowed to enter the country and the horror stories circulating among Venezuelans here in Bogotá of what is happening to people who are stuck in limbo — are haunting. Yet many people continue to make the decision to return home. Knowing the future is very uncertain and that they may face persecution upon arrival at the border — yet they are left with no choice. At least in Venezuela, they will have a roof over their heads and family they can count on.

A Venezuelan father and his children take shelter in their makeshift tent in the migrant camp by the highway on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia on the 8th of May 2020. © Keoma Zec

In early June, it was thought that the flow of people walking had reduced so a makeshift refugee camp was set upright on the edge of the city. Initially, about 600 people lived in the camp with no electricity or water. I decided to take a look to see what was happening and spent the rest of the donation money on helpful goods. I managed to buy an infrared thermometer, stoves to cook on and about 400 bottles of disinfecting alcohol. The migrants stayed there as a form of protest — asking for help from the Colombian government to get to the border. Now the camp has been cleaned up and a lucky few have been taken in buses to Cucutá. The rest are still stuck in the bus terminal. The Colombian government promised weeks ago to help put them on buses to the Venezualan border — but this still hasn’t happened.

This is a silent humanitarian crisis — and one that is getting very little attention globally. While people now just want to go home, they have seen the opportunity of a better life that has now slipped through their fingers. They now don’t know what is waiting for them on the other side. Once their suffering in Colombia comes to an end and they make it to the border, their next ordeal awaits them in the broken country that they call home.

A young Venezuelan man walks across the boundary of Bogota city on the 8th of May 2020. This is the beginning of his month-long walk back home to Venezuela. © Keoma Zec

From the Photographer — ‘Get me back to Caracas’: desperate Venezuelans leave lockdown in Bogotá was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.