Rufo Chacon says he is beginning to forget colors.
The teenager lost both of his eyes just two weeks ago, during a July 2 protest in the Andean city of San Cristobal, Venezuela, which turned bloody when police began firing rubber bullets into the crowd.
The doctors who tried to save his eyes said that 52 rubber buckshot pellets hit his face, 16 of them flying directly into his eyes.
A police report investigating the accident said state security forces forcefully repressed the crowd without warning. Two other underage protesters also received head injuries, the report says. One of them was Chacon’s younger brother, Adrian, 14, who received a blow to his skull from a police baton. Both were there with their mother, Adriana Parada, to protest shortages of cooking gas in the region.
Chacon stubbornly refuses to give up hope. “I want to have my sight back,” he tells CNN with a firm voice, weighing every word. “I have all sorts of feelings, I would like to cry but I can no more. I cried enough in the hospital,” he says.
After the protest, Venezuelan authorities announced that two officers had been charged for “attempted murder, improper use of weapon and cruel treatment” in dealing with the protesters. They are currently awaiting trial. The statement by the attorney general’s office specifically references Chacon’s case, as does a tweet by the attorney general, Tarek William Saab.
The announcement came hours after the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet published a report that denounced “patterns of violations of all human rights” at the hands of the Venezuelan state—a report which the government of embattled president Nicolas Maduro has refuted as biased.
The Andean regions of western Venezuela have long been known for anti-government resentment. Since 2014, it has been the theater of some of the most violent clashes in the country.
“All politicians are crooks, all of them,” Chacon says. “The law here attacks the people. It should be the opposite, the law should be to protect the people, but here they act against us.”
Doctors at San Cristobal Central Hospital say they could only remove what was left of Chacon’s eyes. He is still at risk of infection, doctors say as pieces of the rubber pellets remain embedded in his face and head, too deep for the surgeon to reach.
But Chacon spent only four days in the hospital, he says, after doctors decided that staying in the neglected facility could further increase his risk of infection. Public hospitals in Venezuela have been hit the worst by the country’s crisis in recent years; chronically understaffed and under-resourced, many institutions lack simple hygienic standards such as running water or ventilation, while medicines are even harder to find.
Back home in Tariba, a small rural settlement in the hills surrounding San Cristobal, Chacon shares a bed with his grandmother. His mother and two younger brothers sleep in the only other bed. Adriana Parada used to work for Tariba’s city hall until last year, when she joined the more than four million Venezuelans who fled the country in search of better-paid work to support her family.
After six months in Colombia, she returned to Venezuela in late June for Chacon’s graduation from high school. Now she says she doesn’t know how to look after her injured son, and whether she can ever leave again.
At home, Rufo struggles with flies, who crowd around the open wounds where his eyes used to be. There is no air conditioning in the house, and power outages have become the norm. “[Blackouts] come maybe three, four times a day, sometimes we spend up to half a day with no power,” Chacon says.
Despite the protests, gas remains a rarity. Before Venezuela’s economic collapse, just about everyone in Tariba used to cook using gas canisters refilled by a state company at a regulated price. But now, despite the country’s vast hydrocarbon reserves, gas has become harder and harder to find. Those who can afford it buy gas on the black market. Chacon says his family hasn’t been able to buy cooking gas since early April.
Chacon says he used to dream of becoming a software engineer but now that dream seems further away than ever. “I finished high school this year, and I want to go to college and study software engineering,” he says. “Whatever happens with me, I still want to go to university. I actually wanted to move to the United States, find a visa somehow and go to a country where technology is a bit more advanced.”
After being shot, Chacon’s plight swiftly became known in the Spanish-speaking world. On the same night of the protest, Puerto Rican music star Don Omar published a picture of the injured and bloodied Rufo on his Instagram account, blaming the soldiers for allegedly firing too low.
Offers to pay for treatment have come in from around the world, including Mexico, Spain and the US. One clinic in Colombia has offered to perform an eyelid transplant on Chacon for free.
His mother, Adriana, has also opened an Instagram account to crowdsource financial help for the family. But due to currency controls on the country, Venezuela’s economy is effectively sealed off from the outside world, and they can only receive donations from inside the impoverished country.
Don Omar’s gesture was particularly important for the teenager, who says he loves music. “Before the accident I was half writing a song, in my head. I don’t have the lyrics here, but I remember I called it ‘The relief song’: I was writing it because I have always tried to see civil society in a different way,” Chacon says.
“Here everything is chaos around us. But my mom taught me different.”