COLOMBIA (BP) — Night descends rapidly on the small plaza where a penetrating drizzle falls onto the cold stone floor. About 35 men, most in short sleeves or sleeveless shirts, huddle under the only two trees.
Meanwhile, two young women scurry to pull together an improvised “tent” of black plastic trash bags while trying to keep a small girl dry in her fuzzy footsie pajamas. They select the top step of the plaza, against the wall of a closed building. Rain runs off the roof onto their shelter, collapsing it.
Nearby, under the narrow archway of the building, a young couple sit in physical exhaustion, leaning as far back as possible, their legs from the knees down with nowhere to go but out in the drizzle. Between their two bodies they try to shelter their eight-month-old son.
This is the first Colombian town of any size on the route up, over and along the high, arduous Andean mountains from the Venezuelan border, across Colombia to the Ecuadorian border, across Ecuador to the Peruvian border and — for some — across Peru to Chile or Argentina.
It represents only the first few days of travel by foot for Venezuelans fleeing the surreal collapse of their nation — once one of the wealthiest on the continent.
They are only a handful of the 200 to 500 Venezuelans who pass this way every day, some pushing the elderly in wheelchairs, many carrying a baby or child, a number well along in pregnancy, nearly all dressed for hot climates. Most have no money, no food, no connections outside of Venezuela. They have not eaten well for a long time in their home country, where a month’s salary will only buy two days’ worth of food. They have sold their homes and belongings to pay for bus fare across Venezuela to the Colombian border — if they are fortunate. Some cannot do even that, so they walk a week across Venezuela to the border — before beginning their long walk toward multiple countries.
Here in neighboring Colombia, the Venezuelans on this dark night on a mountain plaza are sore, hungry, thirsty, cold and wet. They have been walking steadily upward on the mountain highway for anywhere from two to four days. They carry with them everything they own in a backpack or luggage with rollers: perhaps a change of clothes, perhaps photos of family left behind, perhaps work boots for a hoped-for future job. They come from flat, hot plains or the sultry coast. They have never known cold — no more than what would be felt by opening a refrigerator door. They have never slept on the ground in a public plaza.
They have no coats, no jackets, no gloves, no sweaters, no scarves. Their socks (if they have any to begin with) and shoes are already in tatters. Their footwear is flip flops, cheap loafers or low-cost tennis shoes. They are all headed toward a 10,000-foot mountain pass where at least 18 people have recently died of hypothermia and exposure. They have no preparation, no resources for this appalling journey, and no idea what lies ahead.
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SOURCE: Baptist Press