The girl who dreamed of pizza in the middle of the world's most dangerous jungle

Janete, a 13-year-old Congolese girl, recounts her journey through the Darien Gap.

By Alfonso F. Reca, Diana Romero y Clara I. Luna
23 June 2020

Janete, a 13-year-old Congolese girl, tells of her journey with her six cousins through the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous migratory routes on the planet, where the transit of children has increased sevenfold in the last year. "A day before I arrived, I thought I was going to die," she says.

UNICEF Panamá/2020/Urdaneta

"When I was in the jungle, I was very hungry. I still feel the pain of hunger. Not even eating ends it. I thought I was going to arrive at a city.  I thought I was going to eat pizza and drink soda. But when I got here, to Bajo Chiquito, there was nothing. It was a relief, but also a disappointment."

At 13, Janete is a survivor of the Darien, the world's most dangerous jungle that acts as a natural border between Colombia and Panama, an inhospitable place that has seen the increase of migrants in transit. Migration through the Darien increased from 9,222 people in 2018 to about 24,000 in 2019. The increase in children and adolescents is most worrisome, increasing from 522 in 2018 to nearly 4000 in 2019, half of whom are under the age of six, according to official figures.

The Embera community of Bajo Chiquito (Province of Darien), accessible only on foot or by boat, is the first point of contact on the Panamanian side of the jungle. It is a small community of wooden houses nestled in a forest clearing by the Tuquesa River. 460 indigenous peoples live here, but more than 600 migrants from as many as 50 different nationalities temporarily live here in tents, waiting for a space on a boat to continue their journey. The community of Bajo Chiquito does not have access to basic services yet. Hence Janete's disappointment.

Janete has been here seven days. And she's not alone. She travels with her father Kulutwe, her uncle Romeu, her uncle’s wife Sanjia's, and their six children: Francis (16), Genese (14), Israel (8), Miriam (6), Jetfro (3) and Jeicobed (1). Four years ago, they arrived in Brazil from Congo and Angola. In the shantytowns of Sao Paulo, where the little ones were born, they found no prosperity and decided to migrate. Always together.

"Brazil was better than Africa, it was good. It was a little bit difficult to adapt in Brazil, because the children showed prejudice. When I learned to speak like the children in Brazil school became easy" Janete recalls. "Then we had to say goodbye to friends, again."


The dangers of the jungle

And from school in Brazil, Janete came to the gates of the Darien: "When we got here, we entered the jungle and had to climb very slippery mountains. There were a lot of risks. There was a bridge that if you weren't too careful you could fall. You had to try hard to keep your balance to get through. You had to go over rocks and if you didn't step properly, you would fall. The stones in the water were also very slippery. We almost fell in the water and drowned because we can't swim. But we tried our hardest.

The Darien has not earned the reputation of being the most dangerous jungle in the world just because of its mountains and rivers. The Darien has other typical jungle factors such as high temperatures, humidity, animals and insects: "There were not only mosquitoes, there were snakes too.”

We saw cobras near our tent where we slept. We also heard jaguars. There were monkeys passing by. It was very dangerous."

Not to forget the human factor, "There were people who said they were guides but only took our money, leaving us to follow the road alone. We also met three men who weren't very trustworthy. But they didn't steal from us, they were only asking for $5 to show us the way. It looked like they wanted to assault us, but since we said we had nothing, they left. No one helped us," Janete says.

In total, Janete and her entire family took seven days to transit the jungle until they reached Bajo Chiquito. A slow trek with dangers at every turn and many other factors to consider.

Janete's journey.
UNICEF Panama/2020/Urdaneta
Janete (13-year-old) travels with his family made up of his father, his uncle and wife, and 6 cousins between the ages of 16 and 1 year.
Janete and his uncle see a map on a cell phone.
UNICEF Panama/2020/Urdaneta
On a cell phone, Romeu, Janete's uncle, shows his place of origin in the Congo on the map, from where they left more than 4 years ago.

No water and no food

"We thought we could make it (the journey) in four days so we only brought food for those four days. But the journey took us seven days and the meals were finished. We only had powdered juice. We used river water to mix it and make juice. We drank it for strength because the juice had sugar. We didn't know if the river water was clean or not, whether we could drink it or not. But we were thirsty. We had no food and our feet were red, swollen, and injured."

And so, for a week "we dragged ourselves with a tree stick. A day before I arrived, I thought I was going to die." "We all had health problems. Our feet were injured, we couldn't walk anymore. I had the flu; I couldn't breathe very well, and my feet hurt. I crawled a lot, a lot to get here. All we were thinking about was arriving."

From Bajo Chiquito, the Panamanian Frontier Police attends medical emergencies and transits migrants by boat to La Peñita, located in the district of Pinogana in the Darien Province. La Peñita is a community located on the banks of the Chucunaque River that has been adapted as a Migratory Reception Station (ERM in Spanish). While it may be disappointing again for Janete to know that there is no pizza there either, La Peñita will be the first place where they find basic services such as water, health, nutrition and protection. It is the last transit point before escaping the Darien. All transit points are part of the Controlled Flow Operation that finally leads them to another ERM located in Los Planes, in the district of Gualaca in the Province of Chiriquí. At this last stop, they wait for authorization to continue their transit through Central America, with the risks that implies plus the new challenges that COVID-19 and border closures adds.  

"The main risk children face is dehydration because they have been walking in areas where criminal cells operate for days stealing the few belongings families carry with them. The migrants transit the jungle carrying food and water, but usually they either run out or are robbed," explains Margarita Sánchez, UNICEF field officer in Darien.

"Because of the river water they consume, most children suffer from diarrhea, vomit and fever," Sanchez says. "They are also exposed to mosquito and snake bites. Many children tell us they have come in close contact with snakes along the way”, she adds.

Janete and cousins.
UNICEF Panama/2020/Urdaneta
Janete and her younger cousins head to the child-friendly space for children and adolescents that UNICEF with partners operates at the Migrant Reception Station in Gualaca, near to Costa Rica border.
Janete and her cousin Francisco.
UNICEF Panama/2020/Urdaneta
Janete and her cousin Francisco spend time chatting in Bajo Chiquito, an Emberá community that has become a crossing point for migrants on their route to North America.

UNICEF, in partnership with the Panamanian Red Cross, has installed a water treatment plant that provides 40,000 liters of clean and safe drinking water daily through four distribution points, a service that also benefits the local community, making it the first community in this underdeveloped Panamanian province to have safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, as well as programmes for the promotion of hygiene practices as correct handwashing to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Panamanian health authorities vaccinate and provide medical care to all migrants. UNICEF and a Red Cross health technician go around the community daily looking for children and pregnant women, who are amongst the most vulnerable, and checking their health condition, conducting nutritional screening of each child under the age of five, and teaching nursing mothers the importance of breastfeeding. Another health technician heals wounds on feet caused by the harsh jungle. In more serious cases, the person will be referred to the health centre of Metetí, the capital town in the district of Pinogana. 

Since mid-March, Panamanian borders are closed as part of the prevention of COVID-19 spread leaving more than 2,500 migrants stuck in the two ERM. 30 per cent are children and there are 60 pregnant women. 17 babies have been born in this period. UNICEF response is being adapted to this new situation to protect the most vulnerable.  

Janete y su familia.
UNICEF Panamá/2020/Urdaneta

Janete and her family crossed the Darien aiming to reach Canada. She dreams of returning to her studies and becoming a fashion designer. At the lower end of the community, under the shade, in the child friendly space installed by UNICEF and its implementing partner, a group of migrant children, as well as children from the local community, leave their toys and paintings behind and throw themselves to the ground to enjoy a movie. They laugh and play again. Janete, on the other hand, takes advantage of the educational material available to practice drawing, which is what keeps her going. They are all kids again. Darien’s survivors. But first and foremost, they are children.