Dug into rock at the back of a small house in the Colombian city of Pamplona is a modest wood-burning stove. On it sit large pots, brimming with soup, potatoes, white rice and chicken. Here, Doña Marta Duque is preparing food for between 50 and 100 Venezuelan migrants. Her cooking is famous along the migrant route.
From this house on the town’s outskirts, beside a bridge, Marta has provided food and shelter for years to often-desperate migrants, who have travelled the steep 75-kilometre road from the Venezuelan border. Many will have come through the illegal trails that run near the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, the main official crossing point between the two countries. Some will have crossed over the bridge itself. Either way, the migrants end up in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.
There, they often encounter human and goods smugglers. Both categories have been very active since 2015, when economic hardship began leading Venezuelans to leave their country in their millions to resettle across Latin America. In Cúcuta, the migrants decide whether to settle somewhere around the border city, whether to buy goods and return to Venezuela in the hope of selling them at a profit, or whether to venture into the cold Colombian mountains in search of the opportunity that Venezuela denies them. If they choose the latter, it means heading to Bucaramanga, the nearest ‘big’ Colombian city, where they may find the opportunity they seek.
In the seven years since the massive exodus of refugees began, the vicissitudes of the Cúcuta to Bucaramanga route have been many and, at times, dramatic. It took time and protracted negotiations with the Colombian government for large intergovernmental organisations and agencies, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to set up assistance tents along the route. At its peak, more than 5,000 migrants a day travelled along the route. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also mobilised to assist the travellers, but not fast enough to keep up with the scale of the unfolding crisis – the UNHCR recently said that six million people had left Venezuela.
By the time NGOs and other international organisations were on the ground, Marta had become a legend on the Cúcuta to Bucaramanga route. From the beginning of the migration crisis, Marta found it unbearable to stand by and watch the travellers struggle on as they passed through her town. Under normal circumstances, the younger, more athletic walkers would be able to complete the journey in 15 to 18 hours. But the reality is that most of them are carrying bags, children, old people and suitcases. Many will have already been walking for days from the interior or coast of Venezuela. So they often end up spending more than 20 hours on this stretch, huddling on the roadside for at least one night, while big trucks and cars speed past.
Marta started to provide what help she could. What at first was an act of generosity and empathy ended up becoming the central objective of her daily life. What started as a personal project, funded by her own modest resources, would become a foundation, with donations from international NGOs.
Marta offers a sandwich and water to walkers in the morning. In the afternoon and evening, with the help of Venezuelan and international volunteers, she provides a hot meal for 70 to 100 people on the busiest days. At night, she also manages to accommodate many of the women and children travelling the route. They “play Tetris” with their bodies on the mats on the floor, she told openDemocracy with a smile. If there is greater need for space, more room can be found in the garage, which can accommodate up to 25 people when the car is removed.
Initially, the entire Pamplona operation was informal and conducted under the inquisitive gaze of neighbours, some of whom opposed such acts of solidarity. Claiming that it had a bad knock-on effect on the conservative Catholic town, they demanded the regulation of help for the travellers. But Marta, a tireless fighter with more than 25 years of experience as a community worker, managed to formalise the assistance she offered through the Fundación Marta Duque and to channel international aid.
She says that even though multiple actors are now involved in humanitarian action along the busy Cúcuta to Bucaramanga route, there are still problems.
“There are so many organisations and so many donors, [but] where is the coordination?” she asked. Those who cross the border legally receive guidance from the Colombian border authorities and support en route from institutions such as the government-run Los Patios Health Care Centre. The centre houses offices for more than 25 collaborating groups including UN agencies, the Red Cross, NGOs and international organisations such as the Don Juana shelter. The shelter, strategically located halfway between Cúcuta and Pamplona, is managed by the US evangelical Christian organisation Samaritan’s Purse.
But this assistance is not available to refugees who haven’t crossed from Venezuela legally. The municipal authorities demand compliance with existing ‘regulations’, something that Marta considers absurdly bureaucratic in the face of urgent need. Were she to comply with all the standard protocols – health guarantees, security, space, accessibility, identity registration – put in place by the authorities and international NGOs, her small house would probably have been shut down. At best, she would have been able to serve fewer than a tenth of the walkers she has managed to help this far. She laments some of the bureaucratic protocols, for example that she is required to comply with “land-use” regulations when, as she explained, “need and hunger do not require a land-use certificate”. For Marta, what matters is to alleviate the daily humanitarian emergency with the means available.
The help provided by Marta against all odds became even more critical when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Most of the international support centres for travellers closed their doors, but the flow of migrants did not stop. In fact, the number of needy people increased because of the influx of Colombian returnees, who had been rejected by their host countries when economic activity ground to a halt. Despite having lost three brothers to COVID-19, Marta kept her house open. For many, it was the only beacon of hope on a route of hardship and exile that was darker than ever.
It’s clear that when the Venezuelan migration crisis is overshadowed by larger crises, and the big international agencies and NGOs leave the scene, Marta will remain at her wood-burning stove at the back of her small house in Pamplona. There, exhausted migrants on their way to the Colombian highlands can expect a welcome and a cup of hot soup. But there is an urgent need for less bureaucracy and better official coordination with civil society initiatives such as the legendary effort begun by Marta six years ago.
Get our weekly email