How borders dehumanize us
Seeing someone shot was far from the worst thing I saw, but it it made me realize how much life on the border had changed me
Joshua Collins April 15, 2019
(Brooklyn, New York)- Borderlands are inherently chaotic. Until two weeks ago, I lived on a particularly troubled one and it changed me. I spent the majority of my days talking to penniless refugees fleeing starvation and violence. I witnessed street protests devolve into a terrifying madness that resulted in hundreds of wounded. It feels strange to write these words, but it wasn’t shocking. It was just something that happened every day. It was my job.
One can become accustomed to anything.
I am freshly arrived back in the United states after almost two years of living in South America. For the last six months of that time, I have been living on the border of Venezuela in Cucuta,Colombia and working as a journalist.
I didn’t notice how much the experience changed me until I came back. Reverse culture shock is a very real thing. To me, the streets of New York now seem so safe, the prices so high, the people so rich, the buildings so enormous and the colors so bland. Everything seems so foreign.
On the Venezuelan border I stay hyper aware of my surroundings. I don’t drink much. I’m careful how much money I carry and I pass my days listening to tales of suffering.
It all became so normalized. It seemed unworthy of mentioning to my Venezuelan and Colombian friends that I have been successfully robbed twice, unsuccessfully robbed once and avoided a near kidnapping by a taxi driver- they have seen and lived worse.
I developed a shell without even noticing it- an armor of indifference.
I don’t want to misportray my experiences in Colombia- the vast majority of my interactions there have been overwhelmingly positive. I met incredible people and experienced beauty that one can only find in that dreamlike land of magical realism.
I fell in love with the culture as well as with one of the beautiful women. There is much to love. Colombians and Venezuelans have many traits in common- and one of those qualities is a propensity to dance and joke through the difficulties of life.
My friend Gabriela Mesones Rojo, from Caracas, wrote recently:
"The Caribbean is a cruel, strange, magical place. To Europeans we are dancing fools unaware of their miserable reality, shaking our hips through cruel dictatorships, poverty, and hardship. But now I know we don’t dance because we don’t know a hurricane is coming: we dance, precisely, because we know the hurricane is already here."
But the other day, here in New York, back in the safety I took for granted for so many years, something in me broke. I found myself crying in a bar with someone I had met 24 hours before- a near stranger. In a place where I no longer need to keep my guard up, I finally began to face the darkness I have been documenting.
I was describing a teenager I saw shot by Venezuelan militia. I mentioned that it was one of the stories that didn’t generate much interest.
“No one wanted to publish the story of an unarmed teenager shot by Venezuelan militia?” my new friend asked me horrified.
“Well, no. It happens a lot.” I replied. “I mean, maybe it was mentioned in the local paper. But it’s not really a story the international community cares about.”
“Did he die?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really check.”
She looked at me silently. She is a very empathetic girl- sweet and affectionate. I could see was shocked and saddened by my callousness, but she said nothing.
That’s when something broke in me. After everything I had seen, whether he had died or not had become a passing detail, almost an afterthought. Being with someone who didn’t think such a story is normal was an alien feeling, and it forced me to reexamine my reaction.
It shouldn’t be normal that unarmed youths are shot in cold blood. It is shocking and horrifying and vile and though of course I already knew that, I had forgotten. I was ignoring an emotional response to what I considered just one more random, violent act among many, on a chaotic and bloody border. Who mourned that nameless adolescent? Brothers? A mother? A girlfriend? Neighbors? Who had I become?
I finally took off the armor that I didn’t realize I was wearing. And to my surprise and embarrassment, I began to weep.
In the company of a girl I had met the night before, I was suddenly reminded of what it means to be human. She was kind about it and hugged me. She told me not to be embarrassed.
Once I had recovered from the outburst I tried to joke about it, and apologized. But my thoughts kept returning to an often-quoted Nietzsche passage:
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. For if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
Seeing that kid shot was far from the most dramatic event I have witnessed over the last two years- but the very fact that it had become merely another mundane detail of my time in Colombia was what bothered me the most.
The border changed me, and not for the better.
The inherent chaos of borders
Borders are strange places. They dehumanize by definition. They are man-made constructs created to restrict the passage of people. They are gathering points for humans at their most desperate as well as magnets for miscreants seeking to exploit those who are at their most vulnerable.
Goods are trafficked across them by the ton every day- both legally and illicitly. They are populated by stern officials, travelers, refugees, scammers, thieves, merchants and smugglers.
Borders underline the human need to classify some people as others. They are the invisible walls we create between nations, the outer limits of the tribe.
They are also often where violence occurs between nations.
Living on a particularly violent one for six months and being a neighbor to a country in collapse accustomed me to the worst aspects of humanity. Refugees and cheap gasoline stream out of Venezuela, drugs, money, food and basic hygiene items flow in.
The official points are controlled by corrupt border officials- the unofficial ones are controlled by either Venezuelan militia, Colombian guerillas, or the narcotraffickers that operate in both regions. The border is not a pleasant place.
Most Americans don’t have to deal much with land borders. The majority of us fly over them when we bother to leave our country, and once we arrive, our passport insulates us from the majority of the discrimination that they impose upon the rest of the world.
Our own land borders, though more controlled than Venezuela’s, dehumanize as well. One need only look to the news for reminders of that.
It may be apparent at this point that I dislike borders. I dislike what they do to people. I dislike the sense of tribalism that they reinforce, and I dislike being on them.
But I believe it is very important to tell the stories that happen there. I am a walking example of how they can dehumanize and I didn’t even realize it had happened. I went to Cucuta passionate about telling the stories of the human dramas that happen daily there, and in doing so, suffering and violence became normalized.
I will return to Cucuta in a few weeks. And when I do, I will try to remember that they instill skepticism in everyone who deals with them. They are where lives are decided and futures are gambled. They may be necessary, but the suffering they inflict is not.
I invite you to gaze into the abyss with me. It must be faced if we are to recover our humanity. But as we do so, we must be careful to retain our empathy.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.