Colchane, Chile, March 1 (AFP/APP):Anyier sits at the side of the road gasping for breath as the beating sun and 3,700-meter (12,000-foot) altitude take their toll.
It has been seven hours since she entered Chile from Bolivia on foot — her fifth border crossing since leaving Venezuela nearly a month and 5,000 kilometers (more than 3,000 miles) ago.
“This has been the toughest,” she pants, sunburned and with chapped lips. “Awful.”
The 40-year-old, a former employee of Venezuela’s national iron and steel company, set off for Chile on January 25 with her 14-year-old daughter Dany and her partner, 26-year-old barber Reinaldo.
They left a Caracas suburb with just $350 and a backpack of bare essentials for the long walk across the Andean high plain and the Atacama desert, crossing Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
They were not alone.
In small groups, exhausted migrants advance slowly, mainly on foot, completing portions of the journey by bus or taxi, some catching rides on the roofs of delivery trucks.
Nearing the Chilean town of Colchane after illegally crossing the border in freezing desert conditions at dawn, Anyier and other migrants — some traveling for weeks or even months — are desperate for drinking water.
“They don’t even want to give us water,” complains Ramses, who is heading to Rancagua, a town close to Chile’s capital Santiago, where a friend has offered him a farming job.
None of the migrants, many without valid travel documents, wanted to give their family names.
AFP met Anyier and her family as they took a break on the side of the road after a 25-kilometer walk from their last rest point.
The only vehicles to pass were trucks and “lately taxis and people that blackmail us” when offering rides, she says, tearfully.
“A taxi driver stopped to ask us if we had papers and when we said we were Venezuelan he made fun of us and drove off.”
After crossing the border, “we climbed into a truck so that they would take us to Iquique or to Huara, but they said no, they weren’t going to help Venezuelans,” adds Reinaldo.
– ‘Unparalleled crisis’ –
By daytime, the migrants are pummeled by a beating sun and gusts of wind capable of moving a truck. At night, the thermometer drops to below freezing, Colchane mayor Javier Garcia tells AFP.
The village of 1,700 people — one of the 10 poorest in Chile — has since January experienced “a migration phenomenon and humanitarian crisis that is unparalleled in the region,” he says.
Officially, three people — a Colombian woman, a baby and a 69-year-old Venezuelan — have died, “of cold, hypothermia,” according to a soldier in Colchane.
“For months we saw raw, inhuman images at dawn with temperatures below zero — minus eight or minus 10 — of (people) crying from hunger, sometimes without money,” says Garcia.
Some 40 kilometers from Colchane, 26-year-old Alexander lies paralyzed with cold by the side of the road. Covered by old blankets, he wears light clothes and beach sandals over his socks.
He cries, saying he cannot feel his hands.
“He can’t handle the cold,” says a friend, before lying down on top of Alexander and embracing him for warmth.
“Come on buddy, let’s go!” he says, trying to encourage him.
Two others in their 20s throw their blankets and rucksacks into a roadside ditch in an effort to form a rough shelter to sleep in.
The Venezuelans’ reception has mostly been cool in this region of isolated homesteads and indigenous Aymara shepherds raising alpacas.
Garcia speaks of a culture clash between the migrants and the Aymara people of the area, whose reserved character contrasts sharply with what they perceive as the arrogant and noisy demeanor of some of the newcomers.
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