‘Children were dying. We didn’t even have aspirin’: the Indigenous Venezuelans forced far from home

<span>Warao girls on their way home from school in Manaus. The children are adapting fast to their new reality, but some fear traditional knowledge such as weaving, fishing and hunting – and the language and songs that go with those traditions – will be lost. </span><span>Photograph: Nicola Zolin</span>
Warao girls on their way home from school in Manaus. The children are adapting fast to their new reality, but some fear traditional knowledge such as weaving, fishing and hunting – and the language and songs that go with those traditions – will be lost. Photograph: Nicola Zolin

At 4pm, the sound of sirens is fading. On the pavement, a teenage girl – her eyes darting back and forth to monitor police presence – starts smoking crack. She is across the street from “Hotel 583”, a makeshift shelter in a dangerous part of downtown Manaus, the capital of Amazonas in Brazil.

On the second floor of the building, in the Cidade de Deus slum, 20 of the 27 Warao people who live here cram into a sweltering room measuring about 20 sq metres. Some sleep on the floor, while the more fortunate are in hammocks. The children’s stomachs are swollen, the effect of parasites, and their skin is covered in rashes.

  • Warao people are crowded into a makeshift building in the Cidade de Deus slum

The second-largest Indigenous community in Venezuela, with about 41,000 members, the Warao are increasingly making the dangerous trek to neighbouring Brazil, fleeing famine and their own country’s economic and political crisis.

At first, institutions and associations came to help us, but then our situation ceased to be considered an emergency

Paulito García

Since the early 2010s, Venezuela has experienced economic, social and humanitarian turmoil, causing many residents to leave for neighbouring countries. More than 6 million peoplemore than 20% of the population – have fled, one of the largest exoduses in Latin America ever.

The Warao people are no exception. About 7,000 Indigenous Venezuelans have entered Brazil since 2014, amid more than 560,000 Venezuelans, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Far from the lush forests of north-eastern Venezuela and southern Guyana, where they once lived a traditional lifestyle, the Warao – whose name means “boat people” – now survive on one meal a day. Often, it’s a meagre portion of fish and rice. “For the rest of the day, the children’s stomachs are soothed with sugar water,” says a distraught mother.

  • Warao men in a room shared by more than 20 people. Some sleep in hammocks, others on the ground

  • Alexa García in her small room, left, and her cousin Paulito García, right. Alexa says the children cry all the time. She used to work with traditional handicrafts but now she doesn’t have the money for the material

Like many people in the shelter, Paulito García, 49, left the Orinoco delta in north-eastern Venezuela to come to Manaus. This river labyrinth covers 25,000 sq km and includes more than 300 canals. He remembers the banana plants, sugar cane and cassava he grew there. “I fished, I sold fish, I planted for our consumption and sale, and the women sold handicrafts,” he says. “Nature gave us everything.”

In Mariusa, his local village, García was a “cacique”, a village chief. Despite this responsibility, he left his community in 2017 for better opportunities as medical supplies dried up in a national healthcare crisis. “We had no more fuel for our boats that we used every day, even for fishing or going to the hospital, no more access to anything,” he says.

  • The Indigenous Venezuelans live in a poor and dangerous part of Manaus

He travelled hundreds of miles by boat, and bus, and on foot, first reaching Pacaraima in Brazil, then arriving in Manaus months later. Now he shares a 5 sq metre room with his wife and six children.

“In my community, we saw children dying from diarrhoea and fever, and it was impossible to find an aspirin. We felt too vulnerable staying there,” he says. The other Warao continue to call him “the cacique” as a sign of respect.

When Venezuelan migration began, the Brazilian government built shelters and adopted legislative measures to promote the integration of Indigenous communities. The constitutional protection reserved for Indigenous Brazilians now apply to Indigenous people from all countries. The Waraos are, therefore, legal refugees in Brazil.

I told myself that staying there meant not fighting for my children’s future. It was leave or wait to see them starve

Daisy Pérez

But most of the Warao have no permanent job in Brazil. Some men unload fishing boats and get a few fish in exchange, but most speak only a few words of Portuguese; hardly any have studied. To pay their rent, they are reduced to begging.

“At first, institutions and associations came to help us, such as ACNUR [UNHCR], but then our situation ceased to be considered an emergency,” says García. This community’s dream is to obtain land to farm in Brazil.

Wilmer Martínez, 33, also from Mariusa village, lives in the room next door. He decided to travel to Manaus in 2022. He brought his own four children, as well as a newborn belonging to another family from his community, who had tried to give him away three times because of the economic situation.

Nearby, Mauco, two, has a swollen stomach and is vomiting. The adopted child needs anti-parasite treatment that is too expensive for the Martínez family. “We’ve been abandoned here,” Martínez says.

  • The Warao people believe that everything in nature has a spirit, but the children see little of the natural world now

  • Fish are grilled on the shelter’s rooftop. The house is overcrowded with people who have little or no source of income

Warao communities dot the Amazonas region. About 800 Indigenous Venezuelans live in Manaus, mostly in the Cidade de Deus slum. Daisy Pérez, 42, has never seen such miserable conditions and has been going door to door for help with no luck.

She is one of the few members of her Warao community to have completed higher education, and migrated to Brazil in 2017. The former teacher has a good command of Spanish and is proficient in Portuguese, making her the de facto representative of the Warao group.

Like some of the Warao refugees in Brazil, Pérez had already moved within Venezuela, first going to Caracas in 2009 to seek treatment for her mother’s cancer.

  • A young girl in the street outside the shelter

Multiple migrations are common for the Warao. These groups were first displaced in the 1960s to make room for hydrologic projects that diverted their water supply. Epidemics such as cholera, malaria and measles began to appear around the same time, forcing some people to leave their villages. However, the current economic crisis, which caused Venezuela’s economy to contract and the inflation rate to increase to more than 63,000% in 2018, caused the most recent wave of Warao migration in search of better economic opportunities.

Far away from their homes, the Warao remain attached to their traditions. Whenever possible, Pérez travels to the nearby mountains to pick moriche, a palm fruit symbolising the tree of life in Warao culture. This fruit is eaten, and its trunk and leaves are used to build canoes, palm houses and baskets, which women sell.

  • Daisy Pérez (right) is a teacher who moved to Manaus in 2017. She volunteers to help other Warao people improve their standard of living

Like many, Pérez left Venezuela due to the healthcare crisis. Her niece suffered from respiratory failure and could not be treated due to the lack of hospital beds in Caracas. “I told myself that staying there meant not fighting for my children’s future,” says the mother of four. “It was either leave or wait to see our children starve. Any place was better than Venezuela at that moment.”

Pérez travelled by canoe from her village to the capital of Delta Amacuro, Tucupita. She then completed the journey to Boa Vista, Brazil, by bus and on foot. Hearing that Manaus had shelters for the Warao, she ended up there, along with her sisters and parents.

Related: ‘I didn’t eat for days’: hunger stalks Venezuelan refugees

“I couldn’t see myself leaving my parents there with nothing, alone, without being able to help them,” says Pérez. Like her parents, many older community members have joined their families in Manaus.

Pilar, 77, proudly wears her nagua (a traditional dress) as she makes a wicker basket at the Cidade de Deus in the room she rents. Her whole life has been one of displacement: she fled her village with her parents due to flooding, and her community was hit by a wave of cholera in 1994 that forced her to move again. In 2016, she made her way to Brazil to join her daughters.

  • Pilar, 77, has been displaced her whole life

“I’ll be a Warao until I die, even if I have to migrate again. All I need is land,” she says. “But what about the children? Most of them don’t even go to school, and all our traditions are being lost. They won’t know how to fish or navigate in the forest. What will their future be here?”