Their voices gave them away, a pair of Afghan refugee boys surviving in what they called the jungle, a strip of stunted forest along Serbia’s border with Croatia. The children, ages 12 and 16, had been living here for weeks, sleeping in a tent concealed by branches that arched overhead and met in the middle like a hug.
Their hideaway was adjacent to the path they hoped to walk, following the rust-colored rail lines that link Serbia, which isn’t an EU member, with Croatia, which is. They’d already attempted the crossing multiple times, only to be forcibly returned by Croatian border guards who sometimes beat them and stripped them of the one possession they needed most: their shoes.
In the distance near Croatia, a pair of red lights was flashing, as if reinforcing the message: Stop. Stay out. Europe doesn’t want you.
Saddam Emal, green-eyed, 12 years old, was undeterred. It was early spring, and he'd been traveling for seven months already, an almost 3,500-mile journey undertaken without family and aided by smugglers.
At an age when many children aren’t allowed to cross the street unaccompanied by an adult, Emal had trekked from his home in Afghanistan’s war-battered Nangarhar province through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, into the EU member state of Bulgaria, from where he and other refugees I met said they’d been violently expelled into Serbia.
Emal is one of about 300,000 refugee children who made similar journeys in 2015 and 2016—a five-fold increase over previous years. They joined an unprecedented global flow of people fleeing hardship or oppression. At least 170,000 of those minors have applied for asylum in Europe. Emal dreamed of getting to Germany. (Read more about how the refugee crisis is reshaping Europe.)
But for now, like thousands of other refugees, he was stuck in Serbia, stranded by border clampdowns since March 2016 and the tightening of the route through the various Balkan states into the EU.
According to Michel Saint-Lot, Serbia’s representative with UNICEF, 46 percent of the 7,000 or so refugees in Serbia are children. Most are from Afghanistan, and one in three is unaccompanied by an adult. Children like Emal who risk continuing their journeys, Saint-Lot says, are prey to thieves, sexual predators, and smugglers.
“I tell them, ‘Isn’t it better here than where you were?’” They agree, he says, but they want to go to the EU, not stay in Serbia. He’s concerned about reports that minors sneaking into EU countries have been detained, beaten, or forcefully returned in violation of ratifed conventions. According to Saint-Lot, most children don’t want to be in Serbia, and some are “breaking down emotionally because they don’t know what’s next. They don’t see any future.”
Emal had tried, and failed, 18 times to play what the young refugees call the game—a dash across the heavily guarded borders of Serbia’s neighboring EU countries of Hungary or Croatia to what they hope will be a better life. He was determined to press ahead—as soon as he could afford another pair of shoes. “Size 42,” he said, pointing to the dirty gray socks on his feet.
The dim last light of day pierced the leafy canopy sheltering Emal and his 16-year-old friend, Faisal Saleem, as they prepared dinner. Emal had used a one-time voucher for 3,000 Serbian dinars (about $27), gifted by NGOs and distributed at a Serbian refugee center, to buy supplies. He’d spent two-thirds of it on items in plastic bags around him: a few pieces of chicken, cooking oil, vegetables, three loaves of bread.
“I’m very tired; it’s very hard,” he said as he placed the raw chicken in a blackened pot on an open fire. “Beaten in Bulgaria, beaten in Iran, stuck in Serbia. In three weeks I’ve washed myself once. At home I showered every day.”
Cooking and fending for themselves, navigating an underworld of migration, survivors of war and conflict, these children are carrying the hopes of their families on shoulders that should be burdened with little more than a schoolbag. Although Serbia hosts 18 government-run facilities that provide food and accommodation for refugees, Emal and his friend preferred to be as close to the border as possible—to keep trying their luck at the game.
The boys were aware of dangers lurking. They spoke of friends stabbed and robbed by Serbians, of a 16-year-old Pakistani recently killed trying to get out of the way of an oncoming train, of days they went hungry. “On this day God has given us food,” Emal said. “On another day…”
Emal browned the chicken through tear-inducing smoke, then added liquid and sweet peppers. The eldest son in his family, he hadn’t spoken to his widowed mother since his phone was stolen three months earlier. His friend Saleem had offered him the use of his phone, but Emal couldn’t remember his number in Afghanistan. He smiled wistfully. “I pray for my mother. I miss her,” he said. “She used to make good chicken.”
BECOMING A MAN ALONE
In a patch of green in central Belgrade that refugees and aid workers call Afghan park, 15-year-old Inamullah Mohammed sat on a bench near other refugees, hoping to gather tips about how to get into the EU.
“I come here two or three times a week because if I don’t ask about the game, how will I go?” he said. “I just can't stay.”
Like Emal, Mohammed was from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. He too was an eldest son. He had left home 18 months ago because, he said, "the Taliban wants me to join them," and although he’d spent half that time in Serbia, he still considered it an inconvenient temporary stop.
Mohammed was now living in a government-run refugee center, but he’d spent a brutal winter in an abandoned warehouse adjacent to Belgrade’s central railway station, a short walk from Afghan park. He had squatted there with other boys and men in a filthy space with no heat or sanitation or electricity.
The warehouse was demolished in May, rendered rubble like the war zones the children had fled. In its place a shiny new property development was expected to rise, but for now the detritus of the refugee trail lay in and around its ruins: grey blankets, toothbrushes, empty tuna cans, and pleas spray-painted in English on the walls of nearby disused train platforms. “Help me—open the borders” read one. On another wall: “I’m a person too.”
It was there, in the warehouse, that Mohammed had learned to shave, a rite of passage without the guidance of a father or older male relative or even a friend. He hadn’t had facial hair when he left home, but now a wispy mustache had grown in. “I’m alone,” he said. “I haven’t found anyone I can share my feelings with.” His main communication was by phone with his smuggler, an Afghan he’d never met. (See photos of where refugee children sleep.)
Mohammed is the son of a farmer. He’d never been to school. His father sold land to finance the smuggler’s fee of $8,000 and was taking out loans to cover his son’s continuing expenses. The guilt of that financial burden weighed heavily on Mohammed. He wanted to earn back the money spent on him and repay his father, perhaps even buy back their land. At present, though, he was waiting on a wire transfer from home to buy a pair of shoes. Like Emal’s, his last pair had been confiscated at the border.
As we talked, he shared the thoughts that had kept him awake at night on his 18-month journey. “Will I see my parents again? Will an animal eat me, or a car hit me, or someone shoot me or kill me? What will happen to my family? What will the Taliban do to them?” “I saw death many times,” he said. He’d been robbed of his watch and money and had been imprisoned in Bulgaria for seven months.
Only one thing he knew for sure—he didn’t want to stay in Serbia. “What should I do here?” he said, gesturing to the Serbians walking through the park. “These people are poorer than me. Afghans are richer than them.” (Serbia's GDP per capita is 10 times that of Afghanistan's, but to Mohammed, Serbia held no promise for a new life.)
Mohammed remains committed to getting to an EU country. “I’ve tried more than 27 times and have been deported from Slovenia four times. I want to be a good person. I want to learn something, to learn a skill. If the road doesn’t open, I’ll be compelled to go back to Afghanistan, and I’ll be forced to join the Taliban.”
A CHILD AGED BY EXPERIENCE
Delagha Qandagha, a shy eight-year-old, was walking around aimlessly, marking time, when I met him at the Adasevci refugee center. A converted motel (the sign on its façade still calls it that), Adasevci is the Serbian facility closest to the Croatian border, a short drive from Saddam Emal’s “jungle” hideaway. Families were crammed into its rooms, and single men and boys crowded into surrounding canvas-covered hangars jammed with bunk beds.
A group of teenagers and an aid worker played volleyball outside. Men huddled around a Wi-Fi hotspot in what used to be the motel lobby as a little girl walked past sheepishly carrying a load of laundry in a plastic bucket. Like most refugee girls in Serbia, she was traveling with her family. UNICEF's Saint-Lot says there are few, if any, unaccompanied female minors, given the grave threat to girls of sexual and physical abuse and the strictures of the conservative patriarchal cultures of the South Asian and Middle Eastern states where most child refugees come from.
Qandagha walked back to the hangar that was his home. “There is nothing here,” he said. His gray t-shirt and the black scarf around his neck did little to shield him from the morning chill. Goosebumps rose on his scabies-infected skin.
He had left Nangarhar a year ago with a 10-year-old cousin and 15-year-old uncle. He had nothing of home except his memories of mortar fire, fighting, and Taliban thugs—but also of playing cricket with friends and taking meals with his parents and four younger siblings. “I remember happy days,” he said. “I am sad here.”
He wanted to get to France because he’d heard it held many Afghans and because “there is peace in France.” There was peace in Serbia too, but it wasn’t his imagined EU utopia.
He’d had no idea where Europe was before he and his young relatives embarked on their odyssey, traveling through Iran and Turkey into Bulgaria and finally Serbia. The farthest he’d been from home was to Pakistan with his father, who went there to sell blankets.
Qandagha hadn’t told his parents that he and his cousin and young uncle were beaten, detained, and robbed in Iran by “people like Taliban, carrying machine guns.” Nor had he told them that his 15-year-old uncle hid money in Qandagha’s underwear hoping that thieves wouldn’t search a small, delicate-looking boy. Or that he’d cried because he didn’t want his family to worry about him.
In Belgrade Qandagha had lived in the same dirty, dilapidated warehouse as Mohammed. They’d built fires to keep them warm, and “our faces would be black when we woke up in the morning.”
Unlike Saddam Emal, Qandagha didn’t want to play the game. “Roads are closed. No one crosses the border,” he said. He sometimes wished he could go back home. He didn’t know what to do next—he didn’t have a plan. “Nothing,” he said. “Now I can do nothing.”
Rania Abouzeid is an award-winning print journalist and New America fellow with more than 15 years experience covering the Middle East. She recently finished a book on the Syrian uprising called No Turning Back, for publication by Norton in March 2018.
Muhammed Muheisen is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. He has been documenting the refugee crisis around the world for over a decade. Follow him on Instagram.