I recently met five boys who, as part of their journey out of Afghanistan, crammed into the trunk of a compact car. I encountered them at a refugee camp in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and travelled with them as they made their way deeper into Europe. On assignment for UNICEF, I was documenting the experience of children and families as they migrated from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Allahyar, 13, was one of the boys from the car trunk; I asked why he left Afghanistan.
“There is war there,” he told me, as he waited for a train that would take him from Macedonia’s Greek border to Serbia. “When there is war there is no security. In my district of Jagori, the Taliban is cutting the heads off of the people.”
The oldest boy in his group was 15. Their families worked for two years to save the US$3500 required for each boy to make it to Germany, Sweden or Austria – their preferred destinations.
Allahyar’s parents were split on whether to send him to Europe. His mother wanted him to stay in Afghanistan, but his father thought that because of the fighting, he was in jeopardy of not getting an education. Saying goodbye to his mother was one of the toughest things Allahyar has faced in his 13 years.
“I told her I will go and settle somewhere safe, then I will get in contact with you,” he said. “I will study and become someone. Then I will return to Afghanistan.”
Allahyar wore a brave face as he spoke to me. But when I asked about his family, I was reminded of his vulnerability and isolation.
“I miss my family,” he told me. “When I was on my way to Iran, I was crying. I was worried about getting deported, and I really missed my family.”
As the boys waited inside a massive plastic tent for the train that would take them to the Serbian border, they charged their phones and discussed the next phase of their journey. Around them, dozens of other refugees tried to stay warm. In a nearby tent, children gathered at a heated UNICEF child-friendly space to get warm, play games and rest.
One of Allahyar’s friends picked up his phone and showed me a grainy video of the boys in the back of a smuggler’s pickup truck as it sped across the desert. Another friend showed me a photo of all five boys crammed into the trunk of a smuggler’s car. Still, they all agreed the worst part of their journey was taking a raft from Turkey to Greece.
“The raft was very difficult,” Allahyar said. “There were 60 of us. They kept putting on more and more people. The smugglers don’t care.”
As the raft bounced across the choppy water, the boys huddled together and prayed. “Every minute we were praying not to drown, and to make it across the sea,” he said.
All told, more than one million people arrived in Europe by sea last year. Nearly half the migrants who arrived by boat in Greece last year were women or children. A reported 3,771 died at sea.
Finally, after several hours, the train the boys were waiting for rolled into the station. The boys paid 25 euros each and boarded the train. Almost immediately, Allahyar fell asleep and slept most of the way to the border with Serbia. I sat a few seats away. The train car was full of refugees – mostly from Syria and Afghanistan – and the car’s bathroom and the heater were not working. A fine layer of ice covered the windows. Several hundred refugees climbed aboard other cars. Six hours later, amid darkness and rain, the train arrived near Serbia’s border. Volunteers were on hand with food, warm clothing and blankets. There were bathrooms and another UNICEF child-friendly space, where several families spent the night as they gathered strength for the next leg of their journey.
“The journey is difficult but we have no choice,” Allahyar told me. “We have to endure.
Watch the author’s interview on CNN about his experience
Thomas Nybo is an independent filmmaker and photographer who has documented UNICEF’s work in more than 35 countries.