Athens, Greece – At the activist-run Notara refugee solidarity centre in the Exarcheia neighbourhood of the Greek capital, Javid sat with his wife and three children and retraced their departure from Afghanistan.
Although Afghanistan has been at war since the United States invaded in 2001, the farmer only now decided to make the journey to Germany. The final straw came when local police officers in Kabul began threatening him following an intra-familial dispute in his neighbourhood.
“I decided life in Afghanistan was too dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he sold his possessions and used his life savings to pay smugglers. “I have to protect my children. I have to make sure they survive – that’s my job as a father.”
The second largest population arriving in Europe by sea, Afghan refugees make up an estimated 20 percent of all arrivals by boat in 2015.
An August 2015 United Nations report found that in the first six months of the year Afghanistan witnessed a 23 percent spike in women’s casualties and a 13 percent jump for children, compared with the previous year.
Only 27 years old, Javid’s face testifies to a far lengthier and more difficult life than most people his age. “Every day we lived war,” he said. “Every day there was another suicide attack. The situation is very bad and it’s very difficult.”
Although many have returned, Afghans still make up an estimated 2.6 million refugees, according to UN statistics. And as of mid-2014, war had left more than 638,000 people internally displaced within the country’s borders.
In October, US President Barack Obama announced the extension of the American military presence in Afghanistan.
‘The first time we had seen the sea’
Javid remembered the horrifying journey. Made possible by dubious human smugglers, they crossed mountainous terrain, had little access to food and struggled to make it before even arriving to Turkish shores.
Holding up his telephone, he showed a video of his wife and children crowded around a small fire they made to stay warm while travelling through the mountains between Iran and Turkey.
Behind him, the wall of the refugee centre’s kindergarten was blanketed with drawings made by Afghan children who passed through. One drawing shows Taliban fighters beheading a man. With an Afghan flag in the top corner, another depicts boats of refugees capsizing in the sea.
“When we got to Turkey to get on the boat, that was the first time we had seen the sea,” he said. “The children were very scared because the boat was small and made of rubber. They cried for the whole four hours.”
Their fear was not without good reason. The UNHCR has documented at least 3,605 people who died at sea or still cannot be accounted for, this year alone.
‘You might disappear’
In Athens’ Victoria Square – a transit centre for refugees and a gathering point for human smugglers – a family of 17 Afghan refugees waited for their bus outside in the winter chill. “It was difficult for all of us to travel together, especially with the small children,” Fairooz, a businessman and father of one, told Al Jazeera.
Wrapped in blankets and sweaters, the children played while the adults laughed and rejoiced in making it this far safely. “I actually came here [to Europe] because of many threats back in Afghanistan,” Khalil, a 27-year-old who worked for an internet provider service in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.
Adding that some of the relatives are destined for Germany and others for Holland, he said: “I’m looking for a country where I can work and continue my education and have a good life.”
“I don’t want to be stuck in a [refugee] camp for a year or so,” he continued, adding that back in Afghanistan “there is so much kidnapping going on. You walk [in some areas] and you might disappear”.
As the US-led war in his country continues, hardline armed groups like the Taliban have recently encountered a new rival in the form of a local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
“It is much more dangerous now than it used to be,” Khalil said. “The Taliban is fighting ISIL, and the government is fighting both of them. It’s all scrambled up.”
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Standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin earlier this month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghans “need three things: first they need jobs, second they need vocational training to be able to have jobs and third they need housing”.
Merkel said Germany would send back Afghan refugees seeking better economic opportunities. “But where refugees come hoping for a better life – and I know that this hope is big for many – that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status here,” she said.
Qadir Hossaini, 37, fled Afghanistan for Greece long before the present refugee crisis erupted, 15 years ago, after the Taliban raided his university and held hostage dozens of students. Today, he works as a translator for the Doctors of the World humanitarian organisation as more refugees continue to pour into the country.
On a windy winter day in early December, he sat and leaned back on the chilly steel barriors of the Elliniko Olympic Games football stadium, which has been turned into a temporary refugee camp. He explained that his wife and daughter have been unable to join him in Greece for bureaucratic reasons.
“It’s not easy to be here alone,” he told Al Jazeera. “Nobody wants to leave their country and family.”
“Afghans aren’t fleeing by choice. It is not a decision to come to Europe. The Taliban, for instance, kills [its opponents], takes them off buses, cuts their heads off and leaves them in the streets,” he said, using his hands to gesture a beheading motion.
“Winter may slow down the amount of Afghans coming to Europe, but if there is war, then people will keep coming.”
Back in the Notara refugee solidarity centre, Javid said that he hopes his family will return home to Afghanistan one day. “We miss our relatives and our home a lot,” he concluded, sadly. “We never wanted to leave.”
Follow Patrick Strickland: @P_Strickland_