Darien Gap: The last journey of Jan Philip Braunisch

Photo courtesy of Shiwen Gao.

In Ríosucio, a muddy town in Colombia’s Chocó department, a Swedish traveller finds a motorboat to carry him down the Atrato River towards Panama. Jan Philip Braunisch is distinctively tall, with short-cropped hair, round glasses and a small black rucksack. He is tired and dirty after the previous day’s canoe journey from Quibdó, 12 hours upriver, but also upbeat. He is getting closer to his dream: to trek across the Darien Gap.

Before embarking he finds an internet café to send an email to his wife, Shiwen Gao, in Sweden and update his travel blog: “I’m in Ríosucio now. From here it’s not far to Panama. There are supposedly quite many paths. We’ll see how it goes.”

This message, in May 2013, would be the last from the 26-year-old student. For his family waiting for news in Sweden the next two years would be as gloomy as the Colombian jungle that swallowed him up.

Technically Jan Philip’s last message was correct: Panama is relatively close to Ríosucio. Travel by motorboat just an hour down the Atrato River, and the purple mountain spine that forms the border with Colombia rises out of green swamps, a mere 20 kilometers west.

Crossing the uncrossable Darien

The Darien ‘Gap’ is so-called because it is the isthmus of jungle that blocks the vast road systems of North, Central, and South America. Plans have existed for a century to pave it over, but until now no one has. Crossing it has become an adventurer’s badge of honour, the “Mount Everest for backpackers,” as National Geographic writer Robert Young Pelton calls it. It attracts legions of adventurers and explorers on foot, motorbikes and Camel-trophied 4x4s, and one UK tour company briefly ran organized hikes across it.

The trail is tough: hours of poling a boat through lettuce-like vegetation that chokes the swamps, while swatting off the biting tapa flies, then navigating flooded forests and punching up fast-flowing rivers into the hills. But contrary to expectations the Gap is also home to many Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. In fact it is the Wounan people’s walking trails interconnecting their traditional villages that form the hiking trail over the border.

This is the toughest part of the journey, on foot over slippery trails with in- tense heat and rainfall (with 13 meters a year, one of the wettest places on the planet). The border itself is just a small clearing in the jungle, followed by more hiking over endless forested hills before canoeing down more muddy rivers to the road-head of the Pan-American Highway at Yaviza. Getting there can take days, or weeks. Or never.

Attracted by its dense jungles and strategic straddling of Central and South America, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had long established hidden camps on both sides of the border, controlling the flow of drugs, arms and trafficked human immigrants. By the 1990s, as drug routes by sea and air were more strictly controlled, the land route became key for the illegal armies.

“Too many people with guns”

A colleague who led hiking groups through at the?time would each?time come back more worried. “Too many people with guns. Too many payments to get through,” I remember him telling me after one of his last trips. Explorers were no longer welcome.

Nat Geo’s? Young Pelton was? himself kidnapped for 11 days by paramilitaries while on assignment there in 2003, describing it as: “probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It’s used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there’s no military, the trails aren’t marked.”

Despite these risks, Jan Philip came to Colombia with a clear intention to walk the Gap. The maths student was tough and well travelled, in his mother’s words “fearless and determined.” He was also unusually bright, spoke and read Chinese, was learning Arabic, French and Spanish and was set to do a PhD in statistics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

He also travelled as close to local people as possible, spending as little money as possible, packing light (his rucksack weighed 2 kilos), walking long distances (often using a map and compass) and seeking lodging overnight with families he met along the way. In the kit listed on his Colombia blog he remarked that “notably absent is a guidebook (they usually don’t contain any information you can’t ask the locals about!).”

His blog recounts encounters with Colombian families, perhaps surprised to see the tall, sparse mono on their doorstep asking for floor space for the night. One such in Mariquita hosted him overnighted in a tin-roof shack, feeding him rice, egg and deep-fried plantain, and a large breakfast. “I tried to give them 6 dollars for the stay but they refused,” he wrote on his blog on May 10.

His uncompromising and minimalist travel style, imbued with a core philosophy of being with (and trusting) local people, took him far from the usual ‘Gringo trail’ of comfortable hostels and organized thrills. But it also set him apart. His superlight look was more ninja than backpacker.

Before leaving for Colombia, Jan Philip emailed a professor of geography at the University of Kansas, an expert in mapping who had spent time in the Darien on the Panama side, requesting detailed information on the route from Ríosucio in Colombia to Yaviza in Panama, specifically the trails linking the Cacarica and Cupe Rivers: “Will the Indians give me food, roof?” he asked.

Prepared for the jungle, not the guerrilla

The Swede knew the zone was tough and physically he was prepared. (“I can walk 50kms a day if there are paths, and even go swimming across rivers,” he commented in one email) but underestimated the human risks, referring to the “small groups of smugglers” in the area, an understatement for the rampant FARC and neo-paramilitary armies that out-gun Panamanian and Colombian troops in this difficult terrain.

Once in Colombia his course was set for high risk. He was traveling too fast and off the tourist trail to meet other backpackers, many of whom would have given him a reality check. And his “ask the locals” approach failed when, in Quibdó, he visited the police stations to check on the Panama border: “I was honest to them about going to Panama over- land, and they didn’t even say it’s dangerous or anything!” he blogged.

If Jan Philip’s route was dangerous by design, his timing was definitely unlucky. In early 2013, the lower Atrato River was in turmoil with the FARC’s 57 Front under attack from air attacks and state forces. A fragile truce between the guerrillas and powerful drug gang Los Urabeños had also broken down. The zone was hot, hot, hot.

Human rights groups monitoring villages in the zone reported combat, armed checkpoints, harassment and murder of locals by combatants around the walking tracks and rivers along the Cacarica River, the route carefully planned by the Swede to take him to Panama.

But when he set off in a motorboat down the snaky Atrato River that May morning two years ago Jan Philip probably knew nothing of this. Spray from the crowded panga as it planed over the brown water, propelled by a throaty 200hp outboard, would all but blot out the green foliage lining the river banks. The driver would be watching closely for any armed groups lurking on the riverbanks that might stop the boat by waving a red cloth, a signal which if ignored would prompt a deadly burst of gunfire.

And then Jan Philip was gone, taken by armed combatants who stopped and boarded the boat and singled out the tall Swede, leading him into the jungle. The tourist who came to experience Colombia had now joined the ranks of its disappeared.

Death of a loved one is hard to bear, but the limbo of disappearance is even harder. In the two years after he went missing, Shiwen propelled herself into in the search for her husband, at one point visiting Colombia for a crash-course in the complex mosaic of conflict.

It was a Colombia most visitors never experience: meetings with lawyer in cafés, poring over maps, chats with missionary priests, sitting in detective’s offices, and visits to the coroner’s office Medicina Legal, the national forensic labs, where she sat in the coldly efficient waiting room with dozens of families queuing to report their missing kin.

What she learned was hardly reassuring: 20,000 people still disappeared during Colombia’s five-decade conflict. Jan Philip was just one drop in a sea of sorrow.

Finding closure

She also learned the bitter reality that Jan Philip had disappeared in an area of Colombia effectively off-limits to the state since the fierce armed groups defending their illegal activities were hardly going to welcome in investigators. She began to wonder if she would ever find out where he was.

In the case of Jan Philip though, unlike many others, there was suddenly closure. Through mechanisms that cannot be safely recounted, almost exactly two years after he disappeared, the International Committee of the Red Cross handed over a small casket with skeletal remains to government investigators in Quibdó. A month later DNA tests proved a positive match for Jan Philip.

Colombian media, quoting leaks from the ongoing police investigation, blamed the FARC 57 Front for abducting and soon after shooting dead the unfortunate Swede. According to these reports (which are still unconfirmed), they thought he was a U.S spy.

The grim news was devastating for the family, but not that unexpected. For Shiwen the sadness was tinged with relief that she finally knew what happened. She wrote to me from Sweden that in the missing years she had dreamed many times that “Jan was walking in front of me like a shadow, but my hands could not reach him, every time I hugged him he became air.” At last the dream was fading.

What is left is the terrible irony is that in his short visit Jan Philip experienced the very best and worst of Colombia, from the humble families that befriended him and welcomed him into their homes to the barbaric people that killed him in the notorious Darien Gap.


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