As winter sets in, the plight of the hundreds of child refugees who arrive daily is getting ever more perilous.
Naima, 42, is stranded on the Serbian-Croatian border with her two daughters. As Afghans, they are no longer allowed to cross. This is her story told in her own words:
I arrived in the Serbian transit camp of Sid about a week ago, together with my two daughters, who are 14 and seven years old. The police took one look at my papers and said: “You have no right to cross the border.”
Later that night, when we were sleeping, the police suddenly came into the camp and shouted: “Get up, we are going to take you across the border.” All Afghans had to pack their bags and get on a bus.
We thought they would drive us into Croatia, the next country along the Balkan route, but instead they brought us to a town near the Hungarian border. They told us to get off the bus and said: “Go! Walk to the border!” So we all started to walk.
But at the Hungarian border all we saw was a huge fence. And behind that fence there were soldiers with guns. There was no way we could pass.
We walked for 12 hours along that fence, looking for a place where we could pass through. Finally we were met by an interpreter who spoke our language. He said: “You can’t cross this border. If you do, you go to jail for two years.”
All we could do was turn back. We were so tired, and so hungry. My youngest daughter almost fainted. I begged for something to eat and they threw bread at us through a window in the fence.
We had to walk all the way back. When we came to the town we paid people to take us back to the transit camp by car. The whole thing took us three days. People say it was a ruse of the Serbian police to get rid of us because we are Afghans.
‘Life in Afghanistan was hell’
You just never knew when some bomb would explode next to you. Life in Afghanistan was hell.
All our lives we have seen nothing but war
Three years ago my eldest son got badly wounded during an explosion and lost his arm. After that, he decided to flee to Germany. He was able to start a new life there and he begged us to come too. He said: “Things are really better here.”
We sold everything we had, in order to be able to make the journey and pay the smugglers. And then we set off. We travelled through Iran to Turkey. But at the Turkish border, my husband was arrested and sent back. I haven’t heard from him since.
I had to continue alone, with my two children. I managed to find a smuggler to bring us to Turkey. I found another smuggler to take us to Greece in a rubber boat.
I can’t find the words to describe that journey. The day we would cross the sea, the weather was very bad, but the smuggler forced us to go anyway.
We got lost at sea and spent 12 hours in that little boat on the wild waves. I have never been so scared of water in my whole life. Eventually the Turkish police found us and took us back to Turkey.
Ever since, when my youngest daughter hears the word Turkey, she starts to shake and scream. Because it makes her think of the sea and how terrible it was.
The second time we managed to safely reach Greece. From there on, we made it to Macedonia. But in Macedonia, somebody stole my papers. This meant we had to go all the way back to Greece to register again.
It took us eight days. At some point, during those eight days, the Balkan countries decided they were no longer going to let Afghans pass. That’s how we got stranded here, in the transit camp of Sid.
I am at my wits end now. What are we going to do? We can’t go back, because we have spent all of our money. I am very scared of what can happen to my oldest daughter if we try to return without money. Smugglers have no mercy. If we can’t pay them, they will force her to pay them in another way.
They can do whatever they want. When you are a woman on the run and you have no man to protect you, anybody can do anything to you.
The only option left now, is to apply for asylum here in Serbia. That means I will have to live very far from my son and very far from my husband. How is my heart going to handle this? And how am I going to survive without any means of income?
I am 42 years old now, but I feel 70. I can’t sleep at night, because we share a room with many men and I am afraid of what might happen to my daughters. I walked for many miles with a heavy backpack, sometimes carrying my youngest daughter as well. My back has gone totally numb.
All I can do now is to pray to God to save me and my children. It drives me mad to think that if that one paper hadn’t been stolen, we would be in Germany now.