Shielding his eyes from the smoke, sixteen year old Ellum stirs a pot full of macaroni, rice and lentils bubbling on an open fire at the end of a half-flooded drainage tunnel running under the main Athens highway, “We call this dish Patras Pilau”. Home to around thirty teenagers the filthy underground chamber is just one of around a dozen illegal settlements dotted around Greece’s western port city. Ellum sits alone, assigned to his weekly cooking duty, “The others are out; they’ve gone down to the river to wash their clothes”, he gestures to a friend, pointing in the direction of the beach. Thousands of miles from landlocked Afghanistan, this is the first time the teenagers in Patras have ever been confronted by the sea, and all have come here with a wish to cross it.
Few of the boys holed up with the smugglers in Athens make the lone journey that is a dangerous and often futile attempt to cross to Italy, preferring instead to pay for a guaranteed way out of Greece. Squatting in miserable encampments under bridges, in marshland and derelict buildings that are prone to raids by the police, the escape from Patras can take months or even years. Those that do come are the young and the desperate, with no other means they are betting with their lives.
Up above the tunnel, a group of teenagers shelter from the rain in a disused roadside shop that is referred to as the Italy Stop, its broken glass frontage covered in brightly coloured graffiti. Chain-smoking, they peer through the unpainted gaps, hyping themselves up in case a truck should appear over the horizon and perhaps slow down as it approaches one of only two traffic intersections on the busy dual carriageway. Few lorries come this way anymore now that a diversion takes them straight through to the new international port. Of the few that do materialise over the day, most are quickly dismissed as the boys learn to spot refrigerated loads, tankers and local traffic from a distance. The regular drivers know the game, preferring to speed through the lights or chaining together the doors of their containers. Waiting for an average of eight to ten hours a day, a frenzied adrenalin-fuelled sprint ensues when a truck does pass. Hunched inside their hooded tops, the walk back along the road is much slower.
After months on the highway, many of the wayfarers have lost their will to continue. In the roofless shell of an old beachfront nightclub, seventy young Hazaras are presided over by their father figure Ali, a former journalist from Ghazni. Around the litter-strewn black and white chequered dance floor, boys as young as twelve sit out of the cold sea winds, wrapped in blankets under truck tarpaulins hemmed into the walls. Lost in their own worlds, many have turned to drugs as an alternative escape. Ali has seen boys come and go over the past few years but he has also seen many come to the end of the road in Patras, “The people who are deciding to come to Europe- they aren’t coming just for a visit, they are escaping instability but when they reach here they find their problems are worse. Everybody in this camp has a hope for their lives and it’s only because of their aims that they endure these conditions. The young people are the wealth of Afghanistan and we are loosing them”.
Passing the old nightclub, the boys from the tunnel make their way up through the fields of pampas grass carrying piles of salty, soaking laundry. As night draws in, they make their way back to the dingy subterranean camp to eat dinner during a lull in the port traffic. Ellum dishes out his bland concoction into three communal metal plates, laid out on the sodden, dirty floor ready for the boys as they return back from the sea. Squatting down in a line in the dark, narrow passageway, gloves are ripped off, and hands sipped into the hot, comforting dinner.
Wrapping themselves up in gloves, hats and jackets found in the garbage, Ellum and his newly arrived fifteen year old friend Mohammad Sadaq rush to get back out on the Italy Stop. Just two weeks after arriving in Patras Sadaq’s skin is covered in flea bites and he is quickly loosing weight. “I was compelled to leave Afghanistan two years ago just to save my life… Everyday I stand out by the traffic lights I just think about my mother, my father, brothers and sisters. I have to make this journey now matter how dangerous it is because of them”. Breaking off from the group, Ellum and Sadaq wander the three kilometres along the pebbly sea front past rows of neon lit shops selling Tickets to Italy.
At the wires of the high security port, an Afghan boy sits under a plam tree, teasingly playing harmonica as commandoes patrol along the perimeter with dogs. Looking across to the lights of the midnight ferry to Venice, the boys are on the look out for any gaps they can find in the security, desperate to run, “We have to find any way. We have to see”.
This story is part of “The Flowers of Afghanistan“, Alixandra Fazzina’s reportage portraying the individual stories of Afghan children on their clandestine routes from Asia to Europe.