Border closure forces Venezuelan kids to make perilous treks

The closure of Venezuela's border with Colombia is exacting a heavy toll on the thousands who have grown to rely on the neighboring Andean nation for everything from chemotherapy to food as their homeland's humanitarian crisis worsens

CUCUTA, Colombia -- The sun had just begun to rise when Yurladis Rojas and her young daughter began trekking along one of the illegal dirt pathways that have become a perilous lifeline for Venezuelans no longer able to cross blocked border bridges.

As they reached the muddy Tachira River, they joined dozens of other Venezuelan students boarding makeshift wooden rafts intent on getting into Colombia to accomplish a simple childhood goal — going to school.

"We don't deserve this and the children don't either," Rojas, a housewife, said after men pushed her daughter in a gray school uniform across the knee-deep river. "They shouldn't be paying the consequences for what is happening."

The closure of Venezuela's border with Colombia is exacting a heavy toll on the thousands who have grown to rely on the neighboring Andean nation for everything from chemotherapy to food as their homeland's humanitarian crisis worsens.

On a typical day, over 30,000 Venezuelans used to cross the two bridges into the bustling Colombian border city of Cucuta, but both have been closed since the opposition's failed bid to drive through trucks filled with U.S.-donated aid over a week ago.

Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro dismissed the aid push as a U.S.-backed attempt to remove him from power and responded by severing ties with Colombia, where tons of undelivered aid is being stored. What has followed is a tense extension of Venezuela's political standoff, with thousands of Venezuelans ranging from patients to schoolchildren seeking risky alternative routes to Colombia.

Complicating the ordeal is the lack of communication between Venezuelan and Colombian authorities amid the diplomatic strife.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has joined 50 other nations in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful president, but the military is standing with Maduro and the bridges remain closed. Felipe Munoz, Colombia's director for Venezuela border issues, said officials have had no contact with Maduro's administration over the closure.

Venezuela opposition leaders, meanwhile, are looking to go through outside organizations like the Red Cross in appealing for their assistance in securing the safe passage of children and vulnerable adults and reopening the border.

"Lives are being put at risk," exiled lawmaker Gaby Arellano said.

Colombia and Venezuela have a porous 1,370-mile (2,200-kilometer) border where illegal armed groups charge for passage. Numerous rights groups have documented cases in which Venezuelans have been robbed or assaulted while trying to pass. Occasionally, the Tachira River swells to the point where those carrying heavy loads of contraband goods like raw meat are pushed under by the current.

An estimated 3,200 Venezuelan schoolchildren cross the border to attend school in Colombia, where many parents believe they will get a better quality education, not to mention at least one meal, sometimes the only one they'll get in a day.

Crossing hand-in-hand, the students stand out in their plaid uniforms and knee-high socks amid the swell of people carrying bundles of goods like rice and toilet paper and suitcases with their life's belongings.

"This is having a humanitarian impact against children, against those who are ill, against the people of Venezuela," Munoz said.

It's not the first time the border has been closed. Maduro ordered major crossings shuttered in 2015 in what he said was an effort to crack down on rampant smuggling and has periodically opened and closed it in the years since.

Victor Bautista, a Colombian official handling response to emergency border issues, said the current shutdown is considerably graver because authorities have not been able to negotiate the entry of students and ill patients as they did in 2015.

A small delegation that included an official from Colombia's civil defense service approached a line of Venezuelan national guardsmen stationed at one of the bridges last week when the bridges were due to reopen after the scuttled humanitarian aid push.

Bautista said the delegation asked them about reopening the border or allowing neutral human rights groups to facilitate communication but were told all orders had to come from Caracas.

"Their position is not to let people through," Bautista said.

Humanitarian advocates like the International Rescue Committee say they have already seen a dip in the number of Venezuelans participating in services like psychological counseling and medical screenings for pregnant women.

Marianne Menjivar, the group's Venezuela and Colombia director, said reports of sexual violence against those passing through the illegal pathways known as "trochas" is also worrying, even more so considering that many children are now crossing.

"This isn't really a choice that a child should have to make," she said.

Absent a resolution, parents like Yorley Carrillo say they are willing to take chances to ensure their children get an education.

"Every day more and more children are coming," she said.