The Country of Broken Mirrors

The crisis in Venezuela is worsening. The political, economical, humanitarian, and social developments in the country have in the year 2018 forced two million people to flee their homes. “The country, a fragmented mirror, broken and contained in other mirrors also fragmented and broken,” writes Fedosy Santaella, writer and professor of literature. In his finely-tuned text he depicts daily life in Venezuela, which today is characterised by hunger, insecurity, and fear.

January 22 2019 Text: Fedosy Santaella Translation from Spanish: Tanya Almada

A light, that no one looks at, plays with the walls and the few remaining furniture without witnesses, enters the empty apartment. It once had the laughter of two children, the warmth of a father and a mother, the restless steps of a lapdog. A year ago, the five of them left the house to head to another country.

A bedroom, equally empty, of the son who left. His mother comes in every day and cleans in a concentrated, sad silence, thinking about her boy who left school and who is now a waiter and paints houses on weekends in a cold city in the United States.

This other room was of a boy who no longer walks the earth. The national guards killed him in a protest in 2017. It was with pellets, it was with bullets; it is not known. His parents were barely able to see the corpse, from afar. The press could never find out anything.

And in this other room, a doctor once slept. He could not keep on watching how his patients suffered, how there were no medicines, how his friends, other doctors, were leaving the country. He didn’t want to leave, but it was too painful to stay. His wife now sleeps on the sofa in the living room. His two young children still ask where dad has gone.

Another apartment, an elderly lady. A single mother, a lonely grandmother. She, like many old people who have not left the country, hides in her house. Grandparents, grandmothers surrounded by a suffocating silence. The grandmother said, “This is my house, it has always been my house, they will not take it from me, I will not leave”. During the day, she goes out into the street, and walks, stooped, towards the queues in the markets, towards the lines at the banks to collect her meager pension. She can’t even have a coffee, she doesn’t have enough money to pay for just a pound of the worst coffee in the world. She had a life once. Every day she wonders how everything is no longer there. To have lived so much, to have strived so hard just to end up in oblivion, in opacity, lost in the labyrinth of broken mirrors, wandering in the corners, afraid.

Fear goes through the walls. Another old woman was surprised in her bed one night. They attacked her with scissors. In the head. How much can you take from an old lady's apartment? Only her life.

In a house on a farm in the countryside, the son was stabbed, and his father was stripped and tied with barbed wire to a chair. They asked him again and again where he had hidden the money, that he had surely saved money, and where was it? His son was dying beside him, he was bleeding to death. He died there on the ground; the father could not do anything. The last evil act of the delinquents: leaving the father alive, in a serious condition, but alive. He will forever have the memory of his dying son, and then dead, next to him.

But there is also a place with seven rooms that are always occupied. They call it The Tomb. Five, six floors underground. They say it's cold, they say that those who fall into those cells get deprived of sleep for weeks, even months at a time. The walls are white, there are no windows. The beds are made of cement, they have no mattresses. There are no visits, there is no sunlight, there is no time, but there are cameras and microphones. You can only hear the subway, somewhere, above their heads. After a while, the prisoner begins to show symptoms of horror. Diarrhea, vomiting, high fever, hallucinations of broken mirrors over broken mirrors over broken mirrors.

A garbage truck runs by, it’s going to that supermarket where shelves are almost empty, and products have unaffordable prices. Silhouettes of women, children, young men await in a corner. They’re now running behind the truck that reaches the back of the supermarket. The employees begin to take out the bags. They no longer leave them in the trash containers, but take them outside just in time for the arrival of the truck. This started a few months ago, after the number of people surrounding the containers of the supermarket became unmanageable. Now, when they throw the bags on the truck, people throw themselves over the metal mouth. They throw in their hands, their arms, half of their body to catch something. Fruits and vegetables, mostly decomposed, and meat and chicken skin from the butcher shop, when meat and chicken do arrive. Those driving the truck don’t lower the metallic gate until the hungry crowd has passed. Those driving the truck, it’s worth mentioning, are also hungry. There is no bread in the bakeries, there is no meat in the butcher shops. The names of shops have lost their meaning. Everything bears the stamp of hunger now. There are those who are killing stray dogs. They kill them, they take them to the ravines, they skin them, they chop them, they cook them, they eat them. Hunger has a dog’s face. And fear goes along with it.

The fear of day, the fear of night. There are residential areas where the avenues and the streets are deserted at eight o'clock, the businesses (of what?), closed. Those who dare to go out to the bars stay inside them until six in the morning, when the day begins to clear up, and it is then when they dare to return to their homes, still at risk.

On the highway, traffic is suddenly halted. Something has happened over there. After a few seconds, a man and a boy about thirteen years old cross the congested road. They get on the traffic island and there they stay, looking towards where the cause of the beginning of the jam should be. The man is wearing worn jeans and a dirty ripped brown shirt. The boy is wearing shorts that are also scruffy and reach his knees, and a sleeveless shirt that is too big. The man is wearing broken sports shoes; the boy, flip flops. Both, mind you, are carrying pistols. Among the cars, people also with a desolate appearance begin to circulate. Children, women, men. Most carrying sticks and what looks like pieces of debris. On the other side of the road, a truck of the national guard passes by in the opposite direction. It’s going at full speed, full of policemen. Up ahead, shots, shouts, imprecations, and a jam on the breaks are heard. At the beginning of the jam, guarded by the traffic island, a group of people shoot and throw stones and debris towards the guards. There are few firearms, but they are there. A line of guards protects others who are waiting in the back with shotguns in hand. They will start shooting at any moment, maybe pellets, perhaps tear gas, and then the lethal choreography will move towards those of the traffic island to end the dystopian and grotesque chaos once and for all. Those on this side are guarding something that is undoubtedly precious: a refrigerated truck that carries meat and is lying on its side where the traffic jam is. The back doors of the truck are open. The transport belongs to the national guard; it was transporting meat for high-ranking officers. People, especially children and women, crawl in and take out whole pieces of flayed cattle and leave them on the asphalt so that others, younger men, women and even children can hack in a hurry. Thus, they grab the pieces and run towards the mountain and get lost into a ravine where a slum of cardboard and zinc shacks sits at the bottom. In recent times, the looting of food trucks has become frequent, and on no occasion has the government done anything to prevent them. But you know, the hunger of the generals is always a priority.

The shooting’s intensity is decreasing now, they are running out of bullets. However, men continue throwing stones and debris. Now detonations can be heard over the guards’ side. The place fills with smoke and a sour smell that settles like fire in the eyes and nostrils. Some car doors open, passengers fall defeated on the ground or run to the back. In the background, some fifteen meters away, it still smells like a tear gas bomb, but the effect is no longer so intense. Those who are just arriving yell to the people of the place to keep moving, to flee or else they are going to kill them, to move on. Everyone runs, and most end on the other side of a sharp curve, on the shoulder, under the shade of some trees. There are unconscious people, children who won’t stop crying. Shots are heard in the distance.

It takes about an hour; the calm has returned, and people begin to go back into their cars. After a few minutes, the traffic moves. There is national guard checkpoint where the meat truck rolled over. There is no trace of the truck or the looters. Only armed guards, sticks, debris and blood stains, blood that may be from the meat that was in the truck, but who knows.

On another road, near the border, there are long lines of displaced people. Yes, displaced people, because hunger and fear are a form of war. They go on foot, mothers with their children in their arms. They sleep on the side of the road. Sometimes it rains, and the world is a violent swamp that turns and goes out of its edges, turned into darkness that swallows everything. The cold bites their legs, the pavement licks their shoes with fire, they wear out. And now the skin is not skin, but burning, raw flesh. There goes that line. Somewhere, a river can be heard. From time to time, there’s an illusion of beauty. That river sound that accompanies them from below, and that sometimes goes away and then comes back to them, like a faithful pet that passes and always returns.

The country, a fragmented mirror, broken and contained in other mirrors also fragmented and broken. Incomplete places, incomplete people. Torn-apart people who are torn apart, people like broken mirrors. Broken people, broken country.

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Fedosy Santaella (Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, 1970) is a writer and a university professor with a degree in Literature from the Central University of Venezuela. Author of several books of stories for children and novels such as Los nombres and El dedo de David Lynch. His work has been awarded with the José Rafael Pocaterra International Biennial in Narrative and with the El Nacional story contest.