They are nine members of the same family (brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, children) sitting at the edge of the road about ten kilometers from Cúcuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. The youngest is 1.5 years old, the oldest 39, one of the three young women is five months pregnant. They rest for a moment before resuming their walk. Because, as thousands of other Venezuelans without resources have been doing for months, they flee, on foot, their country. In Colombia, they were given a name: "The caminantes" ("The walkers").
Junior, Gabriel, Gabriela, Maria, Carioca, Anthony and the three children are from the town of El Tigre, in eastern Venezuela, more than 1,100 kilometers away. They took the bus, hitchhiked and are now walking for four days because they have almost no money left. To where ? They do not know it. Towards a job, hope one of them, towards a future, says the other. Why are they fleeing? Because of "situation", "We had nothing to eat for the baby," "My pregnant wife needs to feed herself properly"… Anthony, 25, whispers: "My parents told us to leave. We are afraid there because they forcefully recruit young people to take them to war. " In their misfortune, they rejoice. Arrived for a few hours in Colombian territory, they were able to eat thanks to the solidarity of passers-by and NGOs.
A little further, on the same road, another group of young people (aged 18 to 27) from Valencia, in the north of the country, is making good progress. Where are they going ? "In Bogotá, 605 km away," Throw one of them, bravache. It is not only the kilometers that will have to swallow, but also Andean passes at more than 2,800 meters above sea level and therefore the cold, hunger, fear …
All entered Colombian territory on Sunday through the Simón-Bolívar International Bridge, which still carries around 25,000 people a day, nearly 3,000 of whom remain in Colombian territory to find work or cross the country to go to Ecuador or Peru. . The others, frontier, come to stock up and look after themselves, feeding a market around the bridge which looks like the months of more and more to a court of miracles.
"Phones of all types, hair, gold, silver, I buy everything"shouts Samuel, 25, in the crush. An old man offers worthily a few bags of laundry, a boy of about ten years sneaks into the colorful crowd by shaking cloves of garlic, still others offer drugs: ten aspirin tablets for 500 Colombian pesos ( 15 cents) or capsules of amoxicillin which we have not known for how long they are at room temperature. It is hot: about 32 degrees despite the rain clouds that are coming.
The diplomatic-military standoff over American aid – arrived with great fanfare last Thursday in Cúcuta – which is played between Washington, Bogotá and Caracas, and especially between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela , does not seem to stir up a lot of excitement among the crowd busy surviving. Many rejoice: "The end of the regime is near." Some do not know, others fear foreign military intervention, others a civil war. But most point out that their country is in such a state that it will take years to rebuild. In the meantime, for today, the urgency is to look for work, eat, find drugs or prepare to take the road.
On Tuesday, Guaidó announced in Caracas that "23 February will be the day of the entry of the humanitarian aid to Venezuela". Meanwhile, in Cucuta, dozens of tons of food and medicine from the United States remain stored at the entrance to the Tienditas Bridge, one of three bridges that connect the Colombian city to Venezuela. Inside hangars guarded by local police and private security guards, some 50 people – Colombians from the Colombian National Disaster Risk Management Unit (Ungrd) and Venezuelan volunteers – are working every day to Sort the pallets and pack the goods for distribution. "It's a process, we're in the first phase," explains Eduardo Esquivel, of the Venezuelan Foundation in Cucuta, which brings together hundreds of volunteers in the region.
The humanitarian aid, promised by Juan Guaidó, must go through the Tienditas bridge, currently blocked by the army. Photo dinson estupinan. AFP
How will this help enter Venezuela? This is the big question. Since the border closure decreed in August 2015 by Maduro, only pedestrians pass through the international bridge Francisco-de-Paula-Santander and the international bridge Simón-Bolívar, open from 6 am to 6 pm. The Tienditas Bridge, built by both countries and completed in 2016, has never been inaugurated or used. In the middle, Venezuelan side, two huge containers and a tanker truck installed across the blockage block the passage since last week to mean that no convoy will pass, as Nicolás Maduro said. Several media also reported the presence of military and militia "Civico-military exercise" Tuesday.
On the Colombian side, in front of the gates and the gate that block access to the hangars and the bridge, a small group of Venezuelans keeps watch every day since Thursday for news. Karla Velasco, 31, and her sister, a public servant, both from San Cristobal, are desperate: for eight years now, their 63-year-old father has been wearing a pacemaker whose battery must stop working in a few weeks. They do not know who to talk to.
And when Venezuelan deputies from Juan Guaidó's Popular Volunteer Party (VP) arrive, suddenly there is excitement. The flamboyant Gaby Arellano, deputy of the border state of Tachira, in exile since May, monopolizes the microphones and the cameras of the journalists: "Tienditas is today the bridge of the union. I am convinced that the distance from here to my country [environ 300 mètres, ndlr] remains to be crossed. It's a matter of days. We will liberate Venezuela with humanitarian aid. "
But should we consider these tons of American food and medicine as humanitarian aid precisely? Most NGOs (the International Red Cross but also the United Nations) fear political manipulation and have declined to participate in the operation. The UN has increased its aid in the Venezuelan territory for six months and could fear that this standoff with the United States complicates its action. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, rightly received Jorge Arreaza, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nicolás Maduro, on Monday. And no one knows that the tightening of US sanctions will worsen the situation of the Venezuelan population.
In Cúcuta, the 21 international NGOs and the 8 United Nations agencies present to help the thousands of people who arrive every day from the neighboring country as well as the populations displaced by the Colombian conflict are not idle. "We distribute 10,000 meals a day," exclaims Bishop Ochoa, Bishop of Cúcuta, met on the Simón-Bolívar bridge. All humanitarians make the same observation: the Venezuelan exodus does not stop and it is the turn of the most vulnerable to arrive now. "Just stand on the deck and watch them go in their clothes too big to confirm that they are hungry," one of them points out. Fighting malaria, dengue fever and undernutrition are the priorities.
Carolina, 31, and her three children aged 11, 10 and 4, have just arrived from Valencia. She hopes to go to Bucaramanga, 200 km away. "We are traumatized, we have to leave the country," she sighs, sitting on the sidewalk. But if asked about the US aid stored nearby, she grimaces. "It's not help. The United States want to invade us. We want Maduro to leave, but not something worse. "
"The arrival of this aid has undoubtedly generated hope among Venezuelans refugees here. But the repercussions for Cúcuta can be immense. We are at the mercy of any incident on this bridge and we are absolutely unprepared for what can happen, " worries the editor-in-chief of the regional daily Cúcuta, La Opinión.
Several representatives of Juan Guaidó have been here for nearly a week to organize the entry of US aid to Venezuela. Two of them also come to the other key points of Venezuela's borders: in the region of Guajíra, further north on the Colombian border, and in Brazil. For the moment, it is mainly a question of organizing "humanitarian corridors" with volunteers. "We are preparing to distribute the first aid on the Andean road through the states of Tachira, Merida and Trujillosays, confident, Gaby Arellano. I am sure this aid will enter Venezuela. And with it the usurpation will stop, the usurper will fall. The light is at the end of the tunnel. "
In the meantime, when night falls on the center of Cucuta, meager shadows roam and beg at crossroads to afford shelter because the Colombian police prevent them from sleeping in parks and streets. And if you ask Linda, who is on a walk with her 5 year old grandson who pushed her on the road, she sadly brings her hand to her mouth.
Anne Proenza Special Envoy to Cúcuta (Colombia)