Wed, Oct 24, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The longest trek: leaving Venezuela

A mother and daughter risk a 4,345km journey to Peru, becoming two of the more than 1.9 million Venezuelans who have fled their nation since 2105, one of the largest migrations in the world

By Christine Armario  /  AP, PAMPLONA, Colombia

Illustration: Mountain People

As night approached, Sandra Cadiz wrapped her shivering 10-year-old daughter in a blanket and prayed for a ride up the frigid Colombian mountaintop known as “the icebox.”

Two days before, the mother and daughter had fled Venezuela on foot for a 4,345km trek through four countries to Peru, joining more than 650 migrants who walk out each day because they cannot afford a plane or bus ticket.

Cadiz knew not everyone survived the dangerous trek, but she feared staying in Venezuela would mean her already malnourished daughter going hungry.

Now, after five hours of waiting, Cadiz braced herself for a long, cold night sleeping on the ground outside a gas station.

“I am doing this for her,” Cadiz, 51, said of her daughter, Angelis.

In one of the biggest migrations in the world today, more than 1.9 million people have fled poverty, hunger and crime in Venezuela since 2015 — rivaling the flow of Middle Eastern and African refugees to Europe.

Although the toll of this migration is largely invisible, data collected by the Associated Press from various agencies found that deaths and disappearances could reach a few thousand, depending on how they are counted.

At least 235 Venezuelans were reported missing in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador over the past two years. About 334 in Colombia were killed in homicides and accidents, and an unknown number drowned aboard shoddy boats in the Caribbean.

Another 2,841 died in Colombia from illnesses like malaria and malnutrition; though it is difficult to know exactly what role migration played, many arrive weakened by the exodus.

“They can’t withstand a trip that hard, because the journey is very long,” said Carlos Valdes, the head of Colombia’s forensic services office. “They don’t eat and they die.”

The daughter of a housewife and a cemetery worker, Cadiz got pregnant at 15 and dropped out of school. One husband was killed in a robbery, another in a motorcycle accident. Her oldest child died at 25 in a hail of 20 bullets by an unknown killer.

As food became harder to find, Cadiz and her daughter frequently slept outside supermarkets to grab whatever was available when doors opened.

Over the summer, her son, his wife and their baby fled on foot to Peru.

When the government announced a bonus to help Venezuelans transition to a new currency with five fewer zeroes, Cadiz saw her chance to buy two bus tickets to the border with Colombia.

That night she told Angelis they could spend the money on new shoes, or they could reunite with her brother in Peru.

“Let’s go, mama,” Angelis told her. “I’ll walk in my broken shoes.”

The trek through Colombia often starts on illegal dirt trails across the border ruled by armed men.

Three days before Cadiz and Angelis left, police found the corpse of a 44-year-old father shot five times.

In Cucuta along Colombian officials have 37 unidentified bodies believed to belong to Venezuelans.

“They die and we don’t know who they are,” Valdes said.

Cadiz boarded a bus to the Colombian border with her passport — Angelis did not have one — and a handwritten death certificate for Angelis’ father.

At the border, they got separated amid a swarm of migrants. A frantic Cadiz finally spotted her daughter on the other side; she had slipped through without being asked to show a passport.

The next day they set off walking toward the Colombian mountain highland known as the Berlin paramo, where temperatures can dip to 10 degrees below freezing.

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