One frigid afternoon at the Info Park refugee information hub in Belgrade, Serbia, the door opened and two young boys walked in, their demeanor a mixture of relief and great fatigue. On this extremely cold day with temperatures dropping below freezing, one of them was wearing only a thin sweatshirt. They had just arrived that morning from Bulgaria.
Their names are Zahel and Abubeidullah. They are both from Negrahar, Afghanistan and they are both fourteen years old. They came to Info Park, a local humanitarian organisation supported by the International Rescue Committee, with Zahel’s cousin, Suhail, who they had started out with from Afghanistan, but got separated from in Bulgaria. In a moment of pure coincidence, they had bumped into each other that morning, in the park beside Belgrade’s bus station.
Suhail is 13 years old. He has brought them to Info Park’s information hub so that they can get some warm clothes and a cup of hot tea before they head back out into the Belgrade night to find themselves a spot to sleep at the warehouse.
Far too much is unknown about the children who are traveling alone and trying to make their way from countries like Afghanistan to Western Europe. The numbers available are estimates only. However it is very clear that they are here. The warehouse behind the Belgrade bus station is stark proof of that, as it is where many of these young boys stay while they try to find a way out of Serbia and onwards with their journey.
One boy describes the warehouse as “heaven” compared to Afghanistan, but if this is heaven I would hate to see hell. Set on bleak industrial land the warehouse has become the makeshift refugee site of Belgrade. On any one night there are an estimated one thousand people staying there, a significant number of whom are children travelling by themselves.
The warehouse is dirty, dark, cold, drafty, and pest-infested. Refugees do what they can to light fires to keep themselves warm, but the materials they are able to find to burn are often toxic and the smoke will catch you at the back of your throat. While some children do choose to stay at one of the three official shelters that have been set up for them in Serbia, many would rather stay here. They don’t trust anyone. They have heard that if they go to one of the government-run shelters they will be deported, and they have come too far now to turn around.
The stories these boys tell are similar. They are stories of great courage but immense cruelty. They talk about being beaten at the hands of both smugglers and border guards along the route. They talk about border guards either asking them their ages or not bothering to ask. Either way it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
They describe long journeys in overcrowded cars with barely air to breathe. One boy talked about being put in a box and forced to stay there, for eight hours, before being pulled out, having a hood put on his head and then being bundled into the boot of another car and dumped at the Turkish border. He is only sixteen. They talk about harrowing treks through the forests of Bulgaria in the middle of the night with smugglers ordering them to move faster and beating them, in order to try and make them do so.
All of them have been sent to Europe by their parents. None of them want to let their parents down and are steadfast in their determination to make it to their “destination country,” be that Germany, France, England, Italy. Most have fled because of the Taliban — they were perceived as a threat for the very ordinary reason that they wanted to study. Their schools were burnt down. Their parents were afraid for their children’s lives.
'We call [our parents] and say we are safe,' one boy staying at the warehouse says. 'They will get really upset if they see where we are living.'
Do they ever describe to their parents the conditions in which they live now, or the duress they have been through? No. “We call and say we are safe,” one boy staying at the warehouse says. “They will get really upset if they see where we are living. They have their own problems.”
These are all kids with ambition. One wants to be president of Afghanistan one day. Another just wants to be known. He’s not quite sure what for — but he thinks maybe it will revolve around computer science.
“We want to be useful people in the world,” said Haroon, a nineteen year old from Afghanistan, now staying at the warehouse. “We are already exhausted from the war. We want to go on with our lives based on the pencil, based on education, not based on fighting.” Haroon lost his cousin in the war. His friend lost his brother. “We ran away from the war,” Haroon continued. “We hope that Afghanistan will be peaceful one day.”
These are the faces of boys who have lived so much in their very young years that they hardly look young anymore.
At Info Park’s refugee information hub, a former cafe on a derelict street in Belgrade, Zahel and Abubeidullah finish their tea and head out into the night, fortified in some way for their first night’s stay at the warehouse.
Abubeidullah is determined to find a way to London. Italy is the destination country for Zahel and his cousin. They plan to find a way through Croatia, on to Slovenia, and then to Italy.
“It’s our last border,” they say, “but it’s very difficult.”