'In the middle of a war zone': thousands flee as Venezuela troops and Colombia rebels clash

Lizeth Iturrieta, a journalist in the small town of La Victoria on Venezuela’s western border with Colombia, was woken by the rumble of armoured vehicles rolling past her home. Hours later the sounds of gunfire and explosions shook the walls, and she and her husband dived for cover.

“Out of nowhere we were in the middle of a war zone,” Iturrieta said in a video call from a refugee camp on the Colombian side of the frontier. “After a day of hiding at home in absolute silence, we ran for our lives to the boat to Colombia. We almost fell into the river in the panic.”

More than a week later Iturrieta is one of nearly 5,000 refugees holed up in Arauquita, a small town on the Colombian side of the Arauca River, having fled intense and continuing armed clashes between Venezuela’s armed forces (FANB) and Colombian rebel groups.

Witnesses have described human rights abuses at the hands of the FANB soldiers, including home break-ins and forced disappearances, though independent observers have so far not been able to verify the claims.

“Two men, all dressed in black, arrived to my house and demanded money, they threatened me,” said Eduard, who fled La Victoria last Thursday. “My family had to leave before me, they couldn’t endure the constant sounds of gunfire.”

Those fleeing violence have arrived in a place ill-equipped to receive them, with many sleeping in makeshift camps at a school and public basketball court.

“The authorities here have treated me well,” Castañeda said. “I’m waiting to see what happens next and when I can reach my family again.”

Colombia’s interior minister, Daniel Palacios, declared a “public calamity” on Sunday, a mechanism allowing for humanitarian aid to be dispatched more hurriedly. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is assisting with the effort to shelter and feed the desperate arrivals in more appropriate conditions.

The FANB strikes are targeting dissident rebels who once belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a leftist insurgency that signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016.

That agreement formally ended more than five decades of bitter war that killed more than 260,000 people and forced more than seven million to flee their homes. But hundreds of fighters refused to lay down their weapons and continued trafficking drugs. The National Liberation Army (ELN), another leftist Colombian guerrilla group, is also present on both sides of the border.

Colombian officials and analysts have long accused Venezuela of giving shelter to Colombian guerrillas, although the supposed ideological allies have previously clashed in small scale skirmishes.

In contrast the current offensive, dubbed Operation Bolivarian Shield, has seen about 3,000 Venezuelan soldiers deployed to the Apure state border region since 21 Maart, with explosions and firefights a daily occurrence. Refugees are fleeing across the river by the boatload to escape the fighting.

Diego Molano, Colombia’s defence minister, has said the current escalation in hostilities is due to a dispute between the FANB and illegal armed groups over drug trafficking routes. His Venezuelan counterpart, Vladimir Padrino, has cast the violence as a foreign offensive on his country.

“Colombian irregular groups attack us with explosives and rifles,” Padrino getwiet on Tuesday.

“They are a strange species of heartless and chameleonic mercenaries,” Padrino went on. “Driven by drug trafficking, they intend to do here as they do in Colombia.”

Human rights defenders in Arauquita say that while the civilian population has long lived among rebel groups and drug traffickers on either side of the border – and ELN graffiti is emblazoned on the school where many refugees are camped – they have never witnessed the large-scale terror of the last 10 dae.

“This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” said one human rights worker who asked not to be named. “Each day explosions rattle our windows and ceilings as more refugees arrive.”

The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. “I would say it is making it worse.”

Relations between Colombia, a staunch US ally, and self-described anti-imperialist Venezuela have long been rocky. Both sides have occasionally deployed troops to the border at moments of tension.

The two most recently broke off diplomatic relations in early 2019 when Colombia joined dozens of other democracies in backing Juan Guaidó, a Venezuelan opposition leader who unsuccessfully sought to oust president Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro, who inherited power and the “Bolivarian Revolution” from his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2013, continues to oversee a country in economic and social ruin with hyperinflation, food shortages and power cuts are a daily reality. Four million Venezuelans have fled, with nearly half staying in Colombia, worsening relations further. Colombia in February granted 1.7m Venezuelans protected status.

But now analysts worry that tensions on the border are particularly volatile, and exacerbated by the breakdown in communication between the two capitals.

“The genie is out of the bottle … After years of stubbornly denying that Colombian guerrillas are operating within Venezuela’s country borders, the Venezuelan armed forces are now in open confrontation with a faction of Farc dissidents,” said Bram Ebus, who consults for International Crisis Group (ICG), a thinktank.

“At the height of the cold war, leaders in Washington and Moscow still had a hotline to avoid nuclear catastrophe, but so far Colombia and Venezuela haven’t been able to set their differences aside and open diplomatic channels to prevent an escalation in conflict.”

In Arauquita, dishevelled and desperate refugees are preparing for the long haul as the fighting across the river shows little sign of winding down.

“Authorities in Venezuela are telling us to come home, that the fighting has stopped, but we know that is a lie, we know it could go on for days or weeks or months,” said Iturrieta. “We have absolutely no idea what will happen next, but at least we are alive.”

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