‘A race against the clock’ the return of a Colombian from Peru amid the pandemic
The border closure decreed by President Iván Duque left several Colombians in Peru in limbo, who in a few days had to find alternatives for their return.
This is the testimony of one of those who could return, in which he tells how those days of uncertainty were.
The anguish in Peru started earlier than in Colombia. Before and without time to digest it. On Sunday, March 15, following the spread of COVID19, President Martín Vizcarra declared a state of emergency and closed the country’s borders from that same night. All land, sea, river and air transportation to other countries was suspended in a matter of hours.
Immediately, the airlines began to cancel flights. Latam, Avianca and VivaAir, who usually cover the route between Lima and several Colombian cities, sent emails indicating the cancellation of their services due to the pandemic. The reserves of hundreds of people waiting to return home were frozen until further notice. Calling the call centres or looking for assistance through the web pages was useless since the answer was always the same. In essence, the reservation could be scheduled or rescheduled after the 15 days of the measures of the government of Peru had elapsed.
Fear and anxiety would only increase in that week. First, on Monday, March 16, President Iván Duque announced the closure of borders, except air, something that left open the possibility for many Colombians who wanted to return. Three days later, after enduring pressure from different sectors that demanded more essential measures, he relented and put a limit on the entry of international flights into the country. Arrivals from abroad would end after March 22.
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In the case of Colombians trapped in Peru, this left us between a rock and a hard place. Without being able to go to the neighbouring nation and against the clock to enter Colombia.
Our first step was to contact the Chancellery. The attention channels did not offer a timely response, perhaps due to the collapse, and the few who managed to present their case were redirected to the consulate in Lima. To make matters worse, due to the mandatory social isolation that came into force with Vizcarra’s declaration of a state of emergency, the consulate’s offices were closed, and all attention was online. There was not much clarity on how to proceed, and time was still running. It was Wednesday, and there were only four days left to find a way out.
The web page of the consulate enabled an email so that people could send our data, and a database could be consolidated. Later, via email, and Avianca questionnaire was shared in which the feasibility of opening a commercial flight for Friday 20 would be tested. Hope turned many of us to complete it, but it quickly dissipated when they saw, right there in the questionnaire, the estimated price of the trip: $ 465. Few could afford it. Most already had their ticket that had been cancelled, without the refund, and the cash ran out. They demanded that a free flight be opened, but the idea was scrapped. The Colombian government, through the Foreign Ministry, did not have the resources for such an operation.
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On their own, people began to unite. A WhatsApp group was created and from there coordinated the drafting of three communiqués requesting help from President Duque, Chancellor Blum, the airlines and the Peruvian government. However, the answers came in droplets. The despair was stronger, and several decided to move to the Jorge Chávez airport in Lima and see what they were getting, they were able to receive information from some airport authority about their repatriation. They were not told anything different from what they already knew:
“At the moment, there is no flight to Colombia.”
And meanwhile, planes with tourists from different places departed and returned to their respective countries.
Journalists from various news programs approached and interviewed them. Their appearances and claims, sadly, only served to make one or another individual move and bring them food and water. With no money and close friends to turn to, they had no choice but to sleep outside, with their belongings, all together and with the uncertainty eating them up inside.
On the night of Thursday 19, the consulate sent an email stating that, after several conversations, Avianca would open a flight for sale to anyone who wanted to return to Colombia. The desire, yes, had a cost. To fly from Lima to Bogotá before the total closure of the borders came into effect, 657 dollars had to be paid, higher than the previously announced 465 dollars. Before it was difficult, now it was unfeasible. Also, online purchase lasted a few hours. Later, the website did not even launch the flight in its searches.
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The plane that would travel from Lima to Bogotá, in principle, would take off at 9:00 p.m. Friday, but due to a lack of permits granted by the Peruvian government, they had to postpone the trip. The final date was Saturday 21 at noon.
From early on, the surroundings of Jorge Chávez seemed the meeting point of a protest. Hundreds of people, including minors, pregnant women, and older adults; they were approaching and busily trying to get as close as possible to the entrance gate that was guarded by private security and the police. All the necessary measures recommended by the World Health Organization to prevent the spread of the virus were the last concern of those who were there. Inside, approximately 300 meters from the entrance, the desolate air terminal was visible.
A flight to Buenos Aires, operated by Aerolineas Argentinas, attracted several Argentines who were in a similar drama. They entered first. Then the trip to Bogotá would come.
“I ask those who paid this fare not to forget us. Demand is there to solve something for us. It is not fair with us that we have put his chest, fought, made a noise, and we remain knowing that all our claims opened this flight. Help!” shouted Diana Espinel, a Bogota resident who lives in Neiva and who was surprised by the closing of the borders in the middle of her vacation.
Avianca staff came out and asked everyone who had purchased a ticket for this flight to present their passport and reservation. Subsequently, the data would be verified in a list, and they would be allowed to enter. In this way, the priority had those who put the money, including a good number of Americans and Europeans. Minutes later, those who suffered the cancellation of their reservation for those days with Avianca were allowed to redeem their ticket and obtain a space on the flight. Finally, the remaining cards were put up for sale. The number of empty seats on the plane made it clear that not many had nearly 3 million pesos to return to Colombia.
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“My mom can have 15 million pesos tucked under the mattress, and I can call her to send them to me so I can buy my ticket. But tell me, where will you send it to me if everything is closed here? There is no bank out there, or a Western Union for me to withdraw the money” was the claim of Sebastián Parra, a 21-year-old man who had to postpone his plans to study in Peru and who was part of the people who slept outside the airport.
What happened to people who had reservations with other airlines, who travelled by land or who were in different cities in Peru and were unable to board this flight (it is estimated that in Cusco there are more than 150 stranded Colombians)? Where will they stay and what will they live on during the days of the mandatory social isolation declared by the Martín Vizcarra government? Will they have access to health and sanitation services in a country that, today, registers almost 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus?
Avianca Flight 5052 arrived in Bogotá at 5:00 p.m. Saturday due to a delay due to the angry protest of some passengers who were asked to allow the entry of the hundreds who were left out. The Foreign Ministry’s social networks celebrated the return of these Colombians (and several foreigners). In the comments of these publications, you can read the multiple complaints of those who are still in Peru and their families.
Several have reported that solidarity by Peruvians and Colombians living there has increased. They have had access to lodging and food, but have yet to receive a response on a potential return. It remains to be seen how long this charity can sustain them in times when the economy is paralyzed and how they can protect themselves from a virus that continues to rise in Latin America. The governments of both countries seem not to have this issue on their priority list. The consulate in Lima does what it can, and several public figures continue to echo this situation.