Most Latin American countries went under lockdown in March in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19. However, lockdown meant that many Venezuelans, who were living in Colombia, Peru or Ecuador because of the serious economic crisis in their own country, suddenly found themselves without work. Unable to make ends meet, tens of thousands of them decided to return to Venezuela. It’s a journey of several hundred – or, for some, several thousand – kilometres that some of them are undertaking on foot.
The number of Venezuelans who have returned home varies depending on the source. On May 18, Venezuelan authorities reported that 41,933 Venezuelans had returned home from abroad by land routes and 300 by air, thanks to a special programme called “Vuelta a la Patria” ('Return to the motherland'). The programme, which was launched by Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in 2018, allows Venezuelans living abroad to return home for free.
In the meantime, Colombian authorities reported on May 12 that around 25,000 Venezuelans had left the country, while Peruvian authorities reported that 31,000 Venezuelans had left between March 15 and May 11. Before the pandemic, around 1.8 million Venezuelans lived in Colombia and 860,000 in Peru, which represent the largest concentrations of the diaspora.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team interviewed three Venezuelans who decided to make the arduous journey home.
1 - Returning to Venezuela: a decision spurred by governmental lockdown measures Lockdown left many Venezuelans without work, especially because a large number of them worked in the informal sector as street vendors for example.
“My landlady said that she’d kick me out if I couldn’t pay rent”
Yurkys Rosario came to Cali, Colombia from Venezuela in early 2019. Before the pandemic, she was working in the kitchen at a restaurant there.
The restaurant had to close so I found myself without any kind of income. I couldn’t find more work, so I wasn’t able to pay my rent or my bills or to keep sending money back to my family in Venezuela. I sold some of my belongings but it wasn’t enough to cover my rent. My landlady told me that she was going to kick me out if I didn’t pay it in full. So I decided to leave. I spent four nights sleeping in the square in front of the town hall.
Venezuelans gather in the square in front of Cali’s city hall on April 8 to demand help in returning home.
Eduardo Azuaje is a Venezuelan who also came to Cali in late 2019 after spending four years in Ecuador. Before the pandemic, he worked doing different jobs including painting and ceramics. When lockdown began, he lost a lot of work and was unable to pay rent. Just like Rosario, he decided to leave when his landlord threatened to kick him out.
Even if the situation is also really difficult in Venezuela, we can go to my sister’s house. We have family there. But it was a difficult decision to leave.
Eduardo Azuaje and his family say goodbye to their neighbour in Cali before leaving.
Neo Mendoza, who is also from Venezuela, went to Lima, Peru to work in early 2019. He said that the pandemic only served to speed up his departure because he had already wanted to return to Venezuela, both because he missed his daughters but also because he hadn’t managed to find stable employment in Peru.
I worked as a cook in a restaurant and when they announced that there would be a lockdown, I lost my job. I started washing the windscreens of cars when they stopped at stop signs just to make enough money to eat. In mid-April, I was evicted from my room because I was no longer able to afford rent.
The restaurant where Neo Mendoza was working before the pandemic.
Many Venezuelans living and working abroad, like our three Observers, have been unable to pay their rents and have either been evicted or threatened with eviction. In Colombia, the government enacted a ban on evictions during lockdown in late March. In Peru, however, there is no such measure.
2 - Travelling several hundred or thousand kilometres on foot, by hitch-hiking, by bus or by plane Most Venezuelans have two options for getting home: a mix of walking and hitch-hiking, or they manage to get a bus ticket.
“City officials gave us food and water before the bus left”
Some cities in Colombia have worked with immigration services to organise free bus trips for Venezuelan nationals to the Venezuelan border, where those services have set up so-called “humanitarian corridors” so people can cross. Colombian officials also gave permission for several bus companies to ferry paying customers to the border.
Yurkys Rosario managed to travel to the border on one of the free buses provided by the city of Cali.
I left Cali on a bus on April 14. The journey went well. The city gave us things to eat and drink before we left and the bus made regular stops. But we were stopped and couldn’t go any further when we reached Cúcuta [Editor’s note: a town on the border with Venezuela]. Venezuelan immigration officials didn’t want us to cross the border immediately. So we spent the night at the border, without food or water.
The next morning, we went to the Simón Bolívar International Bridge [Editor’s note: which separates the two countries]. We had to wait there all day, without any water even though the sun was beating down and there were children and pregnant women. Then, finally, at the end of the day, we were able to cross to the Venezuelan side.
Yurkys Rosario filmed this video in Cali, just before she began her bus journey.
Yurkys Rosario inside her bus in Cali. The paper bracelet she is wearing indicates that she has permission to go to the Venezuelan border.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) runs this station on the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
“The journey destroyed our feet”
In the meantime, Eduardo Azuaje decided to travel the 950 kilometres between Cali and the Venezuelan border by foot along with his girlfriend and her two daughters. He made this decision after being unable to get bus tickets, even though traveling such a distance by foot is banned under lockdown measures. If Venezuelans want to leave, they are supposed to contact local authorities, who will put them in touch with immigration officials.
In late April, I posted a message in the Facebook group Paso Fronterizo Cucuta (Cucuta border crossing) to see if any other Venezuelans wanted to make the journey from Cali with us. I wanted to travel in a group because I thought it would be safer.
“Who is up for traveling by foot, starting on the 12th, from Cali to Cúcuta?” These days, messages like this are being posted all the time in Facebook groups for Venezuelans in Colombia.
In the end, my family and I left in early May along with five other people. It was really hard. On one day, we walked from 6am until 9pm and covered around 45 kilometres. It destroyed our feet. The worst part was around Alto de Minas because of the elevation [Editor’s note: Alto de Minas sits at an altitude of about 2,460 metres]. One of the girls in the group had asthma and, during one ascent, we had to carry her until a passing car took her. We tried to sleep up there but it was almost impossible because of the cold. The girl with asthma got hypothermia and, in the end, an ambulance came to get her.
Eduardo Azuaje and his group took these photos on the road.
These photos were taken on the road between Cali and Medellín. The second image shows the wheelbarrow that Azuaje’s group bought to carry their suitcases because all of their wheels had been destroyed.
An ambulance came to pick up this Venezuelan woman, who was suffering from hypothermia, on the mountainous road near Alto de Minas.
We tried to hitchhike and, luckily for us, we got picked up a few different times by passing trucks. Once, we rode in the same truck for about five hours.
This image shows Azuaje’s group in one of the trucks that picked them up.
The group hitched a ride on a rubbish collectors vehicle, which carried them for several miles.
During our trip, we always slept outside, not far from the road, near gas stations or restaurants. We cooked food on a campfire. People along the way helped us by giving us a bit of money, some bread, some potatoes or something to drink.
This photo shows Azuaje’s group sleeping next to a gas station.
The group cooked this meal over a campfire when they stayed near Caldas.
This man gave Azuaje’s group something to eat and drink.
After seven days, we reached Medellín on May 14 [Editor’s note: Medellín is about 420km from Cali]. We went to the bus station because we heard that there were free buses that would take us to the border. We stayed there for 3 or 4 days in the hopes of getting a spot on one, but it was in vain. One man offered us bus tickets for 150,000 pesos [Editor’s note: 36 euros], but we didn’t buy them because they were too expensive. Later, we learned it was a scam and that the bus didn’t have permission to make that journey… [Editor’s note: There are a lot of these scams going on right now, especially on social media.]
This is the bus station in Medellín where Eduardo Azuaje and his family stayed for several days in hopes of getting a spot on a bus to the Venezuelan border.
Finally, a doctor brought us to a shelter that is being run by the city. We are still there. There are about 200 Venezuelans staying here and the food is good. If no buses leave over the coming days then I think that we will continue on foot, because our goal is still to get to Valencia in Carabobo state. But there’s a huge distance still to cover [Editor’s note: nearly 600km] and it is the most dangerous part.
City officials in Medellín are running a shelter called the Coliseo Carlos Mauro Hoyos, where quite a few Venezuelans are staying.
“I was able to get on a flight in Quito, Ecuador”
Neo Mendoza and two of his friends also decided to travel by foot from Lima, Peru where they were living back home to Venezuela, even though travel was also banned within Peru. Mendoza was lucky enough to get on a flight home from Quito, Ecuador.
We left on foot on April 22, because that seemed like the only solution. [Editor’s note: Peru has not put in place any special measures to help Venezuelans return home]. On the first day, we managed to hitch a lift on a truck that took us between 60 and 80km. All in all, about a dozen trucks picked us up in Peru. When we walked, we could cover, at most, 20 to 25km per day if we walked between 6am and 7pm because my friends were carrying a lot of baggage. We always slept outdoors along the road, a little bit away from the road. People helped us by giving us a bit of food, some money and clothes. We traveled some of the way with a couple and their five-year-old child and two-month-old baby.
Neo Mendoza and his two friends in the bed of a truck that picked them up at the edge of Lima.
Neo Mendoza and his two friends stand next to a woman and her two children, who they travelled with for several days in Peru.
We reached the border with Ecuador on April 29 [Editor’s note: After travelling nearly 1,300km]. We had to cross the border illegally because it was closed [Editor’s note: a measure aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19]. That’s how we managed to reach Huaquillas.
The first two photos show the men eating in Ecuador, while the third photo shows the mountains near Otavalo (photo 3).
After traveling for about a week, we reached Rumichaca Bridge, which marks the border between Ecuador and Colombia. But the border was completely shut and we met Venezuelans who had been camping there for days. We were surprised to see that they had tents and shelters made out of cardboard. We stayed there for three days and saw clashes between Colombian security forces, who fired tear gas to prevent anyone from crossing the border, and certain Venezuelans, who responded by throwing rocks.
This photo shows Neo Mendoza and his two friends in Rumichaca.
Finally, on May 8, they told us that a flight back to Venezuela was scheduled for the next day as part of the “Vuelta a la Patria” programme. A bus brought us to the airport in Quito. Before taking off on May 9th, we had to take a rapid result test for Covid-19.
There was a party atmosphere in the bus bringing Venezuelans from Rumichaca to the airport in Quito.
The first few photos show Neo Mendoza at the Quito Airport, while the third photo shows him in the airplane bound for Venezuela on May 9.
There were about a hundred of us Venezuelans stuck at Rumichaca, but about 15 of us weren’t able to get on the plane, including my two friends. They told them that there would be another flight, but there hasn’t been one yet. Currently, about 60 Venezuelans are still stuck there.
This map shows the journeys undertaken by Yurkys Rosario, Eduardo Azuaje and Neo Mendoza. Red indicates travel by foot or by hitch-hiking. Green represents travel by bus. Blue represents travel by plane.
Article by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).
>> Read Part 2 of this article, where Yurkys Rosario and Neo Mendoza tell us what it was like to return home: How Venezuela is managing the flood of expats returning in the middle of the pandemic