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Military

Sheyla Urdaneta
  • CountryVenezuela

I was covering an area where indigenous people live in the state of Zulia in Venezuela. It is a border area with Colombia, in the Sierra de Perijá. In this border area, Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries capture and kidnap indigenous people to process coca into cocaine, which is then used for drug trafficking. The Venezuelan army knows there are guerrillas and paramilitaries in this area. In fact, people have exposed that they operate with support. Aircraft carrying arms and drugs land in this area on so-called clandestine airstrips. The inhabitants of the area were scared and wanted the situation in their area to be made public. The only support they had ever received was from a priest, who unfortunately had died due to Covid-19.

Photo credits: Eva Verbeeck

On the last day of my investigation in this area, I was taken by some soldiers from my hostel to the office of the chief soldier. On the way, I was able to send a WhatsApp message to a colleague telling her what was going on so she could keep an eye on us. When being in the soldier's office and surrounded by military officials, I knew things would not work out well. They asked me what I was doing in this area, who I was with and who had helped me. Of course, I could not expose the people who had helped me because it would put them in danger. After this interrogation, we were told that we would be taken to the office of the National Intelligence Bureau (Sebin), which is the government's political police. At that point, my anxiety increased even more. When a journalist, especially a woman, is handed over to Sebin, you know it is going to be dangerous.

They took away my phone, put me in an office alone with three men: two asked me intimidating questions and the other recorded me. This happened several times. They talked to me about me, about my daughter, they knew where I lived and where I am working. They had checked everything. Luckily I was able to send a message to my journalist friends from the National Union of Press Workers. They were from then on the lookout to see if I would be taken away and disappear, as has happened to other colleagues in my country. Due to the pressure and support exerted by my colleagues, I was released after eight long hours. They escorted me out of the area and said they would keep an eye on me. It was the worst day of my life, the day I saw the face of terror.

After they let me go, legal proceedings were not initiated because suing these government officials does not work in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the authorities favour the government. If I did anything with this, it would put me in more danger and under threat. I was very scared for myself and for my daughter.

I love to walk with others and listen to them. It is my contribution through my work to make visible what happens to the most vulnerable, denounce injustice and help them with their struggles. My line of research remains unravelling networks of women and human trafficking, defending human rights and providing support to indigenous peoples. This means I do - and always will do - my job as a journalist. The government wants to scare people so that no one brings attention to what is actually happening. If we remain silent out of fear, we will all end up sinking and that is not what Venezuelans, or at least I, want.

To those who read my story, I want to say that silence is not an option. At least not for me. Fear paralyses, but we must continue to watch and denounce what is happening. There are too many people whose human rights are being violated. We should stand up for truth as an inalienable norm and defend democracy. 

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