11,109 kilometers away from home, there is a missing migrant

11,109 kilometers away from home, there is a missing migrant.


1. Cameroon and Gabon

That afternoon Samuel must have thought that he had not brought all the water he needed for his mother, while his sister stared blankly at the wooden frame and the brown colour of the mud walls of her Boma[1]. That afternoon it was too hot and they had already run out of food.

The leaves of the trees were swaying in the wind, and in his village, very close to Kembong, a faded Cameroonian flag was painted on one of the trees. For a long time, he has wanted to leave for that country... the United States. He had heard that it was a land full of opportunities, and his friends who had left said that people had jobs and money.

At night a criminal group attacked his village. Amid the deaths and fire, his mother and sister were shot to death in that tragic episode. Samuel knew that he should not wait any longer and the next morning he took the few things that had been saved from the attack and left.

He had heard that to get to the United States, he first had to get to a country called Colombia. He had never heard of that country, much less of South America, or Central America, or the Northern Triangle, nothing. After a very long journey, sometimes on foot, sometimes by bus, Samuel reached the Port of Limbe, in southern Cameroon. From there he sailed for Gabon, and almost without knowing it, he had traveled his first 1,200 kilometers and had yet to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

On the ship leaving Gabon, Samuel took one last look at the coasts of Africa. The migrant smuggler who had charged him 3,000 dollars “just to start with” told him that the next time that he would see the mainland he would be in Colombia. He had never felt so sick for so many days in a row, he couldn't get used to that dizziness, the lack of drinking water, the nausea of the journey. He had eaten little and was quite ill. He spent 13 weeks at sea, which drained his health and spirits. In those long days, he had already traveled 10,000 kilometers across the Atlantic with his 25 fellow travelers.


2. Colombia

The port of Necoclí in Antioquia, Colombia, impressed Samuel with its green waters and mountains that inevitably reminded him of his homeland. But something was disturbing him. With the very little Spanish he spoke and understood, he worried because people were constantly telling him to be very careful, as he was in a dangerous place and the most difficult part of the journey was yet to come.

Samuel learned of the existence of the Darien Gap only after setting foot on Colombian soil: that compact block of vegetation of 108 kilometers (580,000 hectares) that connects Colombia with Panama through the missing section of the Pan-American highway. This is one of the densest forests in the world with an inhospitable topography, and full of dangerous animals. But there was nothing else he could do, he felt that if he had already come so far he had to continue the journey, no matter how.

From Necoclí he began to walk towards Capurganá, a journey that took him two days and was also very uphill. Capurganá is the point where he officially left Colombia and entered Panama. The sound of the jungle frightened  him and a strange familiar feeling invaded him when he saw the green of the trees and heard the water running through a nearby river.

However, it didn't take long for him to find, among the vegetation, the bodies of other migrants who had not endured the rigors of the road. Samuel recalled what several of his traveling companions had told him, “Be very careful when drinking water in the Darien Gap, it is 'dead water'”, due to the hundreds of corpses of migrants that are decomposing near these rivers. It took him five days to walk through the jungle to reach Metetí, the first township in the Province of Darién, already in Panamanian territory.


3. Panama and Costa Rica

It was dawn, he had descended a great mountain and he began to feel tired, when to his surprise he was surrounded by armed men who told him to give up everything he had. In spite of the pleas of Samuel and the other migrants who were making the journey, the assailants began to undress them in search of valuable items. Samuel had his backpack stolen, together with a bag with food that he had been able to buy before entering the jungle, and 1,200 USD, which was a large part of the money he had for the rest of the trip. Despite the terrible situation, the thought that they could not steal all of his money or his cell phone made him feel less distressed.

After 10 more days of arduous walking, Samuel arrived at "La Peñita Camp" where he was finally able to sleep peacefully for a few hours, as he had not been able to do that well throughout the journey through the jungle. After a couple of days in the camp, he started the trip again, and, between walks, rides and buses, he reached Chiriquí, in the province of David, in the cross-border area between Panama and Costa Rica.

In his eagerness to continue heading to the United States, he crossed as fast as he could through a blind spot in Paso Canoas (land border between these countries), and continued his bus ride along the Pan-American Highway until he reached a shelter in the City Cruz, in Costa Rica. He was already only 19 kilometers away from the border with Nicaragua. While at the shelter, Samuel and a Haitian migrant he met on the way decided to share the costs and pay the 80 dollars that a coyote charged them to cross them irregularly over the mountain to Nicaragua.


4. Nicaragua and Honduras

The dry heat of Nicaragua made him feel better, he already missed it! As in the previous parts of the route, he continued to move on foot and by bus. It caught his attention that in that country the prices of things were not as expensive as in the other countries through which he had passed. In fact, for the first time in his life he had gotten into a taxi, which he shared with his Haitian partner and two other Nicaraguan migrants who were heading north like him.

He had barely reached the border area between Nicaragua and Honduras, when another coyote offered to take him for 50 USD to the City of Guasule in Honduras. Not even 25 minutes had passed when the car suddenly stopped and a group of men appeared in the middle of the road with their faces covered, armed with machetes, pistols and rifles; probably one of the gangs of the place. The gang members surrounded the car, and abruptly forced its occupants to go out of the vehicle, telling them to hand over everything they had or they would have not hesitated to kill them. This time Samuel was left with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing.

The inhabitants of a house near the scene of the assault let Samuel spend the night in a garage and gave him 10 USD so that he could continue his journey. With no alternatives now, Samuel continued walking, using the last strength he had left, feeding himself on what people gave him in good faith by the side of the road.

That was the moment during his entire journey when he felt most alone and desperate, but he had decided not to give up. With the strength he took from the memory of his mother and sister, and using the little that he had left of the money he had been given, he reached the Agua Caliente customs office, between Honduras and Guatemala. There he decided to wait a couple of days to study the dynamics of the place, for the first time on his trip. Samuel had to cross a blind spot in the mountainous area on his own in order to enter Guatemala. And he accomplished that.


5. Guatemala

About 8 kilometers from Esquipulas, already in Guatemala, he saw two men fixing a malfunction in a truck transporting scrap metal on the side of the road and he begged them to give her a ride. The men agreed, but told him that because of the roadblocks he could not travel with them in the cabin, but that he had to travel in the back, along with the scrap metal.

They were about to reach a small town called Las Crucitas, in Jutiapa (Guatemala), when a tire of the truck in which he was traveling blew out and the vehicle overturned due to the weight caused by the load of scrap metal. Samuel, who was in the middle of a pile of heavy objects, died of suffocation before they could remove him. "African migrant dies in a truck accident near Las Crucitas" was the headline of various local media the next day. This is how his journey ended, 11,109 kilometers away from his beloved Cameroon. No one claimed his body, no one went to say goodbye.

This chronicle is based on a true story reviewed in the Factum Magazine of El Salvador entitled: The other pilgrims of the Northern Triangle. It was complemented by other real stories of deceased migrants that were daily monitored, recorded and identified by data analysts from the Missing Migrants Project, for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Right now, as you read this article, there are migrants of multiple nationalities tracing these same migratory routes that claimed Samuel's life.

More information at: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/ 


[1] Boma: traditional African house made of mud with a thatched roof.

Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'

Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'
Categoria: Communication & Migration
Autor: Laura Manzi

‘Zamni' (2018) is one of the films that participated in the 2020 edition of the Global Migration Film Festival. The short film, which was selected to be screened at regional level by the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean, narrates the experiences and daily lives of four Haitian migrants in Chile and their integration process in the South American country.

In this interview, the young director Rubén Sánchez, tells what objectives and motivations guided him towards the creation of the short film.

Why did you choose young Haitian migrants as the protagonists of your work? Is there something in their profile that makes them different from other migrant communities in Chile?

What struck us is that the Haitian population here in Chile is the one that finds it most difficult to integrate into society. One of the main reasons is that they speak another language, the Creole language, and that is an even bigger barrier considering that Chilean Spanish has many idioms and tends to be spoken very quickly. Another obstacle to integration is the racism and rejection of some sectors of society towards the Haitian population: whether because of ethnicity, nationality, language or other prejudices. This leads to more segregation and not integration.

In the short film, there are many scenes that portray different landscapes: the sea, the forest, the city. What is the role of nature in the integration process of migrants?

Climatic conditions and landscapes can be a challenge for integration. For example, Haiti is very flat, there are no mountains and the climate is tropical. Here in Chile, nature and microclimates are quite diverse (the north has higher temperatures, the south is more humid and rainy, while the central zone is a mixture of these).
Nature, however, has also a symbolic purpose in the documentary. The mountain range, which characterizes the Chilean landscape, is the great frontier that any person faces to reach Chile. This justifies the scene that opens and closes the film and represents one of the protagonists in the Embalse del Yeso, which is a place here in Santiago, in the middle of the mountain range. We wanted to film those scenes there as a more oneiric way of representing this enormous wall that is like a border to cross in order to reach Chile, and that at the same time symbolizes the great wall that is in the cultural shock that the Haitian population faces.

‘Life is a circle. A perfect circle of which we are not a part': the protagonists in the film have jobs, go to school, learn Spanish. Then, what are the elements that continue to prevent their integration into the host community, this 'circle' from which they are excluded?

The cultural shock is big. If the host society lives this 'fear of the unknown', the Haitian migrant population in turn reacts and this generates a fear of the community where they live. The lack of integration is made difficult by prejudice and because initiatives that value cultural richness are not promoted. I think this is what we lack as a society: to be more educated. If there is no good education, there will be no people who cannot integrate; we still need to be educated and 'humanized'. I feel that in some way we are also 'dehumanized'. This is what the documentary wants to capture: to reflect on the humanity that we need, the humanity that we need to integrate others, to show that we are all really the same, we are all human beings and we all have dreams.

How much is the director visible in his work? How come are you interested in the subject of migration?

The issue of Haitian migration was, for me, a personal concern, because I live in one of the cities in Chile with the largest Haitian population. I used to witness daily this rejection of the Haitian population in the eyes of the people, in comments that were exchanged by whispering in the bus when I went to the university. I was worried about that.
Also, before I enrolled in audiovisual communication, I studied social work, and had many courses on the migration issue and related social policies. I did a lot of research on Haitian migration, which allowed me to capture the central idea of the short film. During the shooting process, I had the opportunity to meet these young people (Haitian migrants), to live their culture, to taste their food. I was filled with a culture that I didn't know, I was filled with knowledge, with a new experience. I wish this documentary could reach more people, change who we are and cultivate our humanity.