ARAUQUITA, Colombia — When the Venezuelan military helicopters started firing shots and the bombing began, Yanet Garcia fled her home. With her family in tow, she made it safely across the border to Colombia in just a few hours.
Garcia, 40, from the outskirts of a small Venezuelan border town called La Victoria, had to force her 82-year-old father off their small farm to come with them. “Let them kill me,” he shouted at her, but eventually relented.
“I was a nervous wreck. We left because we were scared of being killed. I had no idea what was happening, we just left and walked for an hour,” Garcia said, from a makeshift shelter where she is taking refuge in the Colombian town of Arauquita, separated from Venezuela by a 100-yard (91-metre) stretch of water.
Intense and continual armed clashes between the elite Venezuela military unit, known as FANB, and Colombian rebel dissident groups have taken place in various small border towns of Apure state since March 21.
Tensions are high between the left-wing Venezuelan and right-wing Colombian governments over the surge in conflict along the border. Colombia accuses the Venezuelan government of collaborating with former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who reject the 2016 peace deal involved in drug trafficking. Venezuela blames Colombia for allowing these Colombian fighter groups to operate in its territory.
More than 5,000 civilians have now fled across the Arauca river into Colombia, where about 19 makeshift humanitarian shelters have been set up to help them.
People began to flee after the FANB began its violent March 21 operation, where they conducted house-to-house searches, supposedly looking for those working with dissident FARC groups in the area.
Local civilians were accused of being accomplices. Many were severely beaten and imprisoned and there have been reports of killings.
Human Rights Watch researchers say there is substantial evidence the military carried out the extrajudicial killings of three men and a woman during the offensive.
Many of the refugees – mostly poor cocoa farmers – were witnesses to what happened.
“We don’t understand this war … it’s innocent ones who pay,” said Julia Matus, exhausted and sitting on a mattress on the floor of the concrete basketball court, used as a temporary shelter. Her son was beaten and arrested by the Venezuelan military on the first day of their operation.
“They took him away in the street and we haven’t seen or heard from him since,” she said. “There were explosions, helicopters, planes, people running away. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 66 years of life.”
Most of those who fled are poor farmhands, who do not understand what the sudden surge in conflict is about. They said they want to get back to their crops and livestock, but worry about the continuing explosions they hear in the distance.
With wrinkled skin and hands riddled with arthritic nodes from years of hard farm labour, 55-year-old cacao and plantain farmer Nepo Ascensia sits on a stool inside the shelter. Beside him are two pet parrots perched on a branch.
“For Venezuelans right now, anything to do with Colombia is related to the guerrilla groups,” he said. He is worried he will not be able to return to his animals and crops any time soon.
The sea of tents in one of the bigger shelters is home to 310 families or about 753 people. There are an estimated 1,000 children and more than 100 pregnant or lactating women plotted throughout the encampments, located in stadiums, other sports facilities and schools.
Children play among frustrated adults, who live close to one another in tents. Many brought their pets, which are tied up outside the perimeter of the shelter, or with them in their tents.
The sound of loud explosions could be heard frequently, prompting people to shudder with fear and worry during interviews with Al Jazeera.
“While Colombia and Venezuela fight over what these operations are about and put the blame on each other, what we are seeing are thousands of Venezuelans desperately fleeing into precarious conflict regions of Colombia, in the middle of a pandemic, to areas that are ill-equipped to take care of them” Gimena Sanchez, Andes Director of think-tank Washington Office on Latin America, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s very sad to see how in just a few years the rhetoric of building peace between these two countries has come to this, where Colombia internationally blames Venezuela for its own conflicts, and Venezuela is taking a harsh, hardline security approach,” she said.
Dozens of humanitarian organisations and government entities are on the ground providing assistance. On March 31, Venezuela and Colombia rights groups asked the United Nations to appoint a special envoy to address the humanitarian crisis on the border.
Not all who fled are Venezuelans. During the five-decades-long conflict between left-wing FARC fighters, paramilitary groups and the government, many Colombians moved to border towns in Venezuela for safety. Now history is repeating itself for some, such as Jairo Gomez, 44, a returnee whose family fled violence in Colombia to Venezuela when he was 10.
Like a few hundred others, he decided not to go into the shelters due to overcrowding and fear of COVID. Instead, he, friends and acquaintances, have built their own makeshift settlement by the Colombian side of the riverbank, in sight of their homes in Venezuela. They extended the small abandoned house with lumber and tin sheets using plastic tarpaulins for walls.
Inside the rickety dwelling, about 50 people rested on foam mattresses and old furniture. They said they were exhausted and frustrated they can not return to their homes just across the river. Babies, toddlers, teenagers and elderly people live side by side with dogs, chickens and cats.
Gomez and his family fled when the bombing started. He briefly returned to his home soon after he left to retrieve his belongings. He said the Venezuelan military had raided it, taking anything of value.
“My God, it’s nerve-wracking. So much hard work, building a house, buying things for it, for the military to come and do this to it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“What we don’t understand is why does a ‘legitimate’, or ‘revolutionary’ government think it’s OK to attack the civilian population, who hasn’t done anything. We’re here living in fear that there’s going to be a conflict, but we thought it would be between them [the Venezuelan and Colombian governments] … not us civilians.”
Gomez said the sounds of continued fighting in nearby Apure state remind him of family he left behind.
“It’s tough, because one of my sisters is still there and I fear they’ll go to her and her family. I pray to God that doesn’t happen.”