La Garita, Colombia – Marielis del Carmen Velacio walked up to a small cantina shack beside a Colombian highway and sat down. Tears began rolling down her face.
She thought about her sick mother and three children whom she left three days earlier as she gazed up at the hundreds of handwritten notes, hung by others who had made the journey over the past days and months.
Velacio broke down when the cantina’s owner, Marta Alarcon, brought her and the others seated nearby a cup of juice, a piece of bread and an acetaminophen pill. She buried her head in a friend’s shoulder, not saying anything, but experiencing the pain felt by so many who have come to Alarcon’s cantina before.
Velacio said she hadn’t eaten a hearty meal in years, yet here was another stranger in Colombia giving her food.
For Alarcon, it was a scene that repeats daily in the small roadside store which she has opened as a humanitarian space for the migrants and refugees on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia.
“There’s sadness like this, every day,” she said, motioning to the coloured notes that Venezuelans have left at her business, many scrawled on banknotes rendered worthless by that country’s economic collapse.
|Velacio cries into a friend’s shoulder after leaving her home in Venezuela [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]|
‘Wall of Laments’
Locals call Alcaron’s cantina the “Wall of Laments”, although the collection of notes months ago outgrew the wall and now they hang from the ceiling as well.
The notes thank Alcaron, who feeds migrants and refugees a snack and lets them sleep on the concrete floor beneath her roof. They list the names, ages, hometowns and destinations of those who pass through – most are young and headed for Peru or Ecuador.
Many of the notes also dwell on a common theme – the pain of leaving behind family.
“It isn’t easy to leave the country … and [face] so many risks,” one said. “But we had to humbly leave behind our siblings and friends for the good of ourselves and our family. Without more to say we bid farewell, and it gives us much nostalgia to experience so many things. But we continue onward. Thank you. Who we are: Yessica, Marta, Yackson, Deivi, Pedro, Keny and Juan from Yaracuy state, Venezuela.”
|Venezuelan migrants and refugees who recently arrived at the cantina read the notes left behind by others [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]|
A blue sign with the portrait of a young boy reads: “We come through here fighting for our family and in search of happiness for our son. For them, we are fighting. I give thanks to Mrs Marta for her help.”
Another said: “I come with hope and faith on high that everything will be all right and that God will help me to help my mother, my father and my son.”
High rates of family separation
At least three million people have fled the crisis in Venezuela, according to UN figures, most leaving since 2015. More than a million of them reside in Colombia, where the foreign ministry predicts the number of Venezuelans fleeing to the country could hit four million by 2021.
An estimated 5,000 people migrate across the Colombian border each day, most searching for opportunities to support families back home.
Hyperinflation, among other factors, has caused the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, rendering people without access to basic foods or medical care while street violence runs rampant.
Mass migration has also helped drive a soaring family separation rate among Venezuelans, according to Trish Bury, a deputy director with the International Rescue Committee at the Venezuelan border.
IRC surveys show that five to 10 percent of children are separated from their families in most situations of mass displacement, while a survey of Venezuelans in Colombia put that rate at 49 percent.
In mass migrations caused by war, families typically flee together, Bury said, but in Venezuela, uncertainty over food and shelter drives adults and teenagers to set out on behalf of the children and elders they support. Often, extended families delegate a few members to make the trip, find a job, rent a living space and send money home to fund the migration of the more fragile members.
|Migrants and refugees write notes at this cantina about why they’ve fled Venezuela [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]|
Such was the case for 38-year-old Yelitza Sotillo, who travelled with her three adult nieces. For more than a year, the middle-class family had eaten only yuca root and green plantains. Sotillo’s mother was also sick, but they didn’t know what she had because they didn’t have money to pay for a medical examination.
Sotillo, a beautician, and her older sister, a doctor, agreed that Sotillo would take the three oldest of the family kids to Peru, where they had cousins, to find a job. More than half the population of her small town had already fled, she said. Her three children, 12, 10 and seven, cried when she told them she was leaving.
“I told them they had stay because the trip would be hard,” she said through tears, sitting down to rest at night beside the wall of Venezuelan laments. “I never imagined leaving my children. It’s hard to see them cry and to know that this won’t be over in one day or two.”
‘It broke my heart’
Alarcon, the property owner, said all the heartbreak of the migrants and refugees passing through has left her traumatised.
The effects peaked in December when she had a nervous breakdown. She began to feel unwell at her shop and asked a friend to take her home. There she started wailing, begging her friend not to leave her alone, not to let her die there. Doctors told her it was an anxiety attack. She is sure it stems from her service to the Venezuelans.
She also said she’s lost weight from staying up so late to attend to the migrants.
Her service started about a year ago, she said, when she saw a group of teenagers walk by with backpacks and duffle bags. She called them over and asked where they were going. They said Ecuador, which is a mountainous 1,500km journey away.
“It broke my heart,” she said. So she offered them snacks and drinks, and hasn’t stopped since.
|Marta Alarcon (right) says she is heartbroken by the daily suffering she experiences every day [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]|
Back then there was only a trickle of migrants and refugees arriving on foot but Alarcon watched as the number grew. By June 2018 she had met so many migrants that she couldn’t remember each one of them and their stories, so she asked one group to write her a note that she hung on the wall. Then, her collection grew.
More than 100 people pass through here most days, sometimes more and sometimes less, Alarcon said. Most continue their march up into the mountains but those who arrive after dark often stay to sleep on the ground.
The most to ever sleep at the cantina was about 150 people, she said, on the night of January 23. It was the same day that US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido swore himself in as interim president, challenging the presidency of Nicolas Maduro.
Since her cantina sits a six-to-10 hour walk from the Venezuelan border, it is here where many who are fleeing sleep outside for the first time.
“These are experiences that one never imagines they would have, having grown up in a house,” said 18-year-old Raidelys Asnio, who left Venezuela on Saturday morning then walked all day until reaching Alcaron’s cantina.
The path onwards from Alarcon’s cantina heads upwards, ascending almost 3,000 metres, passing from the sunny tropical lowlands up through the clouds into a cold treeless plain near the top of the Andes.
Then it goes on, down the mountains and back up, through Colombia and across the continent. Thousands of Venezuelans have hiked this route already and more begin it every day.
|Velacio left her family earlier this month in search of opportunities outside of Venezuela [Dylan Baddour/Al Jazeera]|
At Alarcon’s cantina, Velacio only stopped to rest a short while. After she cried with her friend, Alarcon gave her canned tuna. Then she stood up, determined to walk two more hours before resting that night, resigned to sleep wherever she found herself then.
A long road lay ahead, she said, and the sooner she finds her destination, the better.
“The second I have a job that is stable I will bring my kids and my mom,” she said. “All I want is the best for my kids.”