She has journeyed several thousand kilometres and spent months in refugee camps in Turkey and Greece. Now she is counting down her last days in a makeshift refugee camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border. If she and her family are lucky, in a few days they will be in a new camp on their way to Western Europe, somewhere between Szeged and Budapest.
Zahra Inajati is a 4-year-old girl from Afghanistan, who has been moving from camp to camp for so long that she doesn’t remember her life before that. She does not remember Afghanistan, where she was born, or her house.
And she has never had long hair. By the time she was old enough to let her hair grow, Zahra was living in makeshift conditions, often sleeping on the ground. And that means sun, rain, and lice. So Zahra has short hair. And looks like a boy.
Yet she is a real girl. Zahra likes to look at herself in the mirror; she often rests her head on her shoulder and winks at herself. The one mirror in the camp stands near an improvised tap, from which water runs into a little canal that leads into the nearby forest. The canal is filled with dirty water and scraps of soap that no one dares to remove. The soap and water make bubbles, and a rainbow forms when the sun breaks through the leaves of the surrounding trees.
Zahra does not look at the rainbow. She looks at herself in the mirror and often glances towards a small door in the fence, where Hungarian police officers sporadically appear to allow a small number of refugees and migrants to cross into Hungary.
Near the tap is an improvised shower. Four blankets are draped over the branches to give people stranded in no-man’s land at least an appearance of privacy. The blankets are dirty and heavy, saturated with water and mud, which splatters as soon as the shower spray hits the ground.
Zahra has just come out of this shabby-looking shower with her mother. Her short hair dries in the sun. She puts on the same clothes she wore earlier and doesn’t seem to mind that she does not have fresh ones. It’s not the most important thing in the world. She looks at the little door in the fence. That is important.
Heavy rays of sunshine have been drying the earth from the previous night’s rain. And yet some mud remains and gets stuck in shoes. Cracks appear where the soil is thin, and the earth dries in lumps.
A white jeep is coming along the dirt road leading to Zahra’s camp. Just as it appears that the vehicle has moved to a dry part of the road, one can hear tortured sounds from the engine, and the tires screech against the mud. Somehow, the jeep manages to keep going, using tire tracks left behind by a tractor to reach the camp.
The jeep is packed with food and hygiene products. Humanitarian workers distribute precious packages. Gratitude is expressed in many ways; some people bow their heads, others shake hands or place hands over their hearts. Eyes and gestures speak volumes, much more than any translator ever could.
As the last box is pulled from the jeep, children line up in front of it because they are used to doing that. Life in refugee camps has taught them to wait. The box is full of supplies provided by UNICEF, thanks to a generous donation from the Government of Japan. Summer polo shirts. New and clean, still wrapped.
A bearded middle-aged man, once a refugee himself, helps the children. He approaches Zahra and gives her a black T-shirt. She accepts it, and then looks at the man and points to the red T-shirt in his other hand. She’s a girl after all. He understands, and hands her the red T-shirt.
Jadranka Milanovic is a Communication Officer with UNICEF Serbia.