Writing through the fog of teargas: what happens when the writer becomes vested in the story?
Finding balance can become difficult when you start to care about the people you are writing about
“I’m in Bogota. We walked here. I haven’t eaten in three days. There’s no work and we’re sleeping in the streets. I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t worry.” I said “I will send you some money.”
I shouldn’t do that, but Maria isn’t just a source anymore. She’s a friend.
Maria is a deserter from the Venezuelan National Guard. I met her in Cucuta, on the border, during protests that had devolved into riots. She had gone AWOL after seeing two fellow guardsmen shot for attempting to desert officially. We stayed in touch after she fled the country. She texts me to chat and to give me updates. She also asks me what’s happening here.
I rarely have good news for her.
During my time covering the Venezuelan crisis, I have spoken with hundreds of immigrants, aid-workers, journalists and Colombians on the border. I am losing my objectivity. I don’t let it show in the hard-journalism stories I write, but it’s happening.
How is a journalist supposed to keep writing about a story that they have become emotionally invested in?
Or maybe a better question, now that I’m emotionally invested, how could I possibly stop?
I listen to a lot of stories- they are often tragic to the point of incredulousness. The poorest of those fleeing Venezuela have been slowly watching loved ones waste away for years, helpless to provide even basic food security.
My colleague in Caracas says that at least the kidnappers there aren’t a threat anymore- no one has the money for the ransoms. So that’s one positive. But last week she was threatened with rape by a paramilitary member for reporting on hospitals during the rolling blackouts.
March 1, 2018, La Villa Rosario, Colombia- Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia through unoficial paths called "trochas"
Things are getting worse
Conditions in Venezuela have worsened considerably since the attempt to push humanitarian aid into the country failed on Feb 23rd. Rolling blackouts rock the country and the oppression against protestors and journalists has become considerably more violent.
The majority of the country lacks access to not only power and internet, but also clean drinking water.
Another colleague named David, from Medida, is planning to flee the country. He says it’s just too dangerous to be a journalist there. The final straw for him was witnessing Venezuelan police arrest child-protestors from his apartment building in the middle of the night.
“It’s too hot, brother. If I keep doing this, I’m going to get myself killed.” he told me.
“You can stay with me as long as you need to. I will meet you on the border. Please be careful, man.” I said.
With luck, he will arrive in a few weeks. He will become one of the millions of Venezuelans who have fled their homeland.
David says that if Colombia is the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Venezuela more resembles the lawless, gothic landscape of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Like Maria, I met David during the riots here on the border. Before crossing back illegally into Venezuela, he laughed as he told me “Don’t worry. I only have enough money for the bus trip. When they rob me there won’t be anything else to take.”
And then he walked into the lawless border-regions of a country suffering death-spasms.
March 1, 2019, Cucuta, Colombia- "Now the struggle is unmasked" Armaments used during the riots of Feb 23rd
What happens when the storyteller wants to change the story?
The thing about writing non-fiction in any sense, whether it’s journalism or an essay like this, is that you only have the power to change the perspective, not the facts.
But I desperately want to change the facts here. How many stories of starvation and violence can one hear before it becomes normalized? Before one is no longer affected? Or perhaps worse, to choose to continue feeling- thus each day suffering anew a heart smashed to pieces by the shocking evil that exists in the world?
I’m not interested in becoming an activist. They fare even worse than journalists here. And anyways, this crisis isn’t about me. I don’t want to be a character in the story.
But how do I continue to internalize the very real injustice, oppression, starvation and deprivation that I encounter on a daily basis and keep a neutral tone in my reporting?
I read articles every day from the media organizations that support Nicolas Maduro. It’s part of my job. Sometimes it is difficult, especially when I have sources and friends directly contradicting the reports, or suffering the consequences of the events in question.
But it’s important. “Chavistas”, or supporters of Maduro, are very rare here on the border. I deal mostly with the people who are fleeing, and they are a subset of Venezuela unlikely to have much faith in the current government. I always try to keep that in mind.
As I’ve written countless times before, the situation isn’t simple.
There doesn’t seem to be a way out of the darkness in Venezuela. And I distrust that the motives of anyone involved in the power struggle are pure.
It’s not like the movies. There are no good guys, only suffering. And far too much of it.
The opposition seems to have woefully misplayed their hand. At this point it seems like Maduro is simply going to wait it out. As a Venezuelan activist posted on twitter the other day “We can’t protest forever. Our bodies can’t endure it.”
The bias forming within me is in support of the Venezuelan people rather than towards any specific “team” struggling for influence and power. The only thing I am sure of is that anyone seems better than Maduro.
But each day the protests become less fervent and the very well-paid Venezuelan military leaders continue to stay loyal. Venezuela no longer seems to be in a stalemate. Rather it is involved in a slow and violent game of attrition, with the citizens paying the deadly price for the protracted struggle.
There is a humanitarian crisis happening before my eyes. And it is painful to watch.
Many people back in the States only see the situation through the lens of US politics. I understand why the complexity is lost. Few people give much thought to a country a thousand miles away- it seems abstract and distant. They have nothing at stake. But just like the story isn’t about me, the US is only a supporting actor in this drama. The crisis is bigger than the United States.
Ideally, journalists would simply continue writing the facts as they see them and the world citizens, being better informed, would reach a consensus about how to resolve the situation peacefully- perhaps like in South Africa under apartheid.
The problem with that formula in Venezuela? When you are writing through a fog of blood and tear-gas, it can be difficult to even know exactly what is going on in front of you, much less prescribe solutions for the future.
The truth is that I don’t see a peaceful solution for Venezuela. And I can’t endorse a violent one. I have a feeling I will be here for a while, watching normal Venezuelans suffer the consequences of those in power.
In journalism ethics they say that if your finished lead matches exactly what you were expecting to find before you did the investigation, then you didn’t do your job correctly. The reporter must be willing to continually disappoint themself with the truth.
I have found the truth here to be more than disappointing. It is tragic. At least I can say my reporting revealed a plethora of information I did not expect to find. But feeling I wrote ethically is cold solace against the horror I witness daily.
On rare days I receive welcome bits of good news or at least share jokes with those here on the border. My friend Gabrielle Mesones Rojo in Caracas says
“Venezuelans dance when we know the hurricane is coming. And we joke. We’re used to tragedy. There’s no point dwelling on it. And if it’s too much, we drink. We wouldn’t survive if we took life as seriously as you Americans.”
I admire her attitude under unimaginably difficult circumstances.
I heard from Maria a few weeks after I sent her the money. She had arrived in Lima, Peru and had found a job working under-the-table in a restaurant as a cook. The job is difficult and it doesn’t pay very well. But she is hopeful. She applied for asylum and with a bit of luck will be able work legally in six months.
She says anything is better than what she fled. But she worries about the son she left behind with her family.
I could really use a phone call in a few weeks to tell me that he has arrived safely in Lima. Her child deserves better than what his country is currently offering.
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Joshua Collins is an independent reporter based in Cucuta, Colombia and editor of Muros Invisibles