Pegging up his black holdall onto the wall, Farshad ducks down next to a traditional stove, keen to get warm after his chilly transit through Kabul. Inside a mud-built mosafer khana, the boy from Logar is surrounded by travellers, all hunched in the centre of the large carpeted room. In sweatbands and a leather jacket, Farshad squints in the golden evening light, scanning his surroundings where the next eight hours or so will be spent holed-up. He nods at a small boy who comes over with a green enamel pot of tea and a round of sweets before slowly settling down. Having spent the last five years growing up on the road labouring in Iran after the death of his father, Farshad is once again making the clandestine journey out of Afghanistan. This time however, he plans to go further afield, “Europe is the place, it’s much better than Asia. Fifteen of my friends are there now; five in France, four in Norway, some in the UK and the rest elsewhere. They tell me there is education, work and law in those countries so now I’ve also made up my mind to go”.
Outside the inn, a steady stream of passengers arrive in shared taxis. Steering themselves around the rutted ground, they pick their way on foot along the Wardak Road, avoiding the ice and deep muddy puddles as they seek out shelter at one of the numerous hotels that surround the Company district bus station. Located on the very edge of Kabul city, Company is the sole point of departure for buses headed to the southern borderlands of Kandahar and Nimroz. The gateway to Pakistan and Iran, the majority of the mosaferin who converge on the dirty terminal each evening are making their first stop on the long and sometimes deadly passage with smugglers.
As the light begins to fade and the mosafer khanas fill up, the activity at Company moves inside. In a place notorious for kidnappings and robberies, it is now time for the passengers to wait out the night nervously in the sanctuary of their chosen hotels. Using their baggage as pillows, groups from provinces across Afghanistan spread themselves out as best they can. Hard as it is to relax in a place where even the piles of shoes left by the doorways are stolen, most sit solemn faced. Touts, hawkers and ticket sellers do the rounds leaving only the moneychangers and phone card salesmen stranded outside under lamps at an impromptu traveller’s bazaar. Respective landlords, who charge for food not board, sit feeding pounded meat onto skewers as kebabs are prepared for the communal dinners. Up on a wooden platform that makes for an extra sleeping level, a group of eight boys who have paid up with the smugglers until Turkey play with their mobile phones. They anticipate that the journey they are embarking upon will take around seven days although their plan is to continue further and “inshalla’ah”, make it to Europe. Aged between fourteen and seventeen it is the first time they have ever left their homes in Baghlan alone.
Just a few of the young mosaferin who arrive at the terminal each night are sure of their destinations. Hundreds of other children, some as young as eleven, have simply been sent forward by their families to go in search of work abroad. Camped among gangs of fellow villagers their future is at best unpredictable. Slumped against the wall, boys like thirteen year old Niamatullah are barely able to keep their eyes open. One of three minors among his travelling party from Badakshan, Naimatullah’s neighbour Abdul Naser to whom his destiny has been entrusted, acknowledges that his journey is unlikely to end in Iran, “Twenty years ago there were no roads, transport or facilities so the people did not wander so far. These days however the travelling is much easier and most people leave for Iran or go on to Europe. Sometimes the boys never come back”.
Starting out in business under the Taliban regime after fleeing to Quetta, smuggler Shaheer has seen thousands of young passengers pass through Company under his watch. Smoking a cigarette laced with hashish to accompany his glass of chay, he like his charges, looks tired and despondent, “There are so many people doing this job you can’t count them. Most of the agents in Kabul are just guys out to take commission and although they promise that they will look after the travellers for the entire way, they quickly hand them over so they should never be trusted. Us smugglers never tell the truth about all the risks ahead on the journey because maybe then the boys wouldn’t travel. The ones who are deported and know everything, well, I have no idea why they still go. I suppose after three decades of war they are just in search of freedom”.
After a two Dollar meal is served along long, narrow plastic mats unfurled across the hotel floors, the coloured fluorescent lights are dimmed. For those without sheets, flea-ridden piles of blankets are distributed under which the mosaferin crawl, spread out like parcels as a few hours sleep are snatched. Only the watchmen and a few wayfarers stay awake, watching flickering television sets or chatting in hushed whispers. By midnight, Company falls silent. Lost in dreams of faraway places, the features of the passengers become contorted by slumber; the only sound their rhythmic breathing.
As the hour approaches one-thirty in the morning, the innkeepers check their watches. It is time to raise their temporary lodgers. Kicking gently at the soles of feet or peeling back the covers, the mosaferin are woken to the chants of “Kandahar! Nimroz! Kandahar! Nimroz!” Bleary eyed, the travellers wake-up, some momentarily unsure of where they are. Picking past a row of old men as they say last minute prayers ahead of the journey, Farshad takes down his bag. Readying himself for the plummeting temperatures outside, he zips up his jacket and fixes his scarf across his nose. Breathing wisps of cold air, Farshad joins the exodus of ghost-like figures that make their way through the darkness of Company, heading towards a fleet of around fifty parked coaches. While some stop quickly at a market selling hot milk and last minute snacks, Farshad and groups of teenagers walk around in the damp, showing their ticket stubs to the bus drivers in the hope that they can locate the seat they have paid for. In an hour’s time, the buses will start their engines. Beeping their horns as they pass the police lines, they depart Company in a long convoy. By the time the sun rises, the road south towards Kandahar will enter its most perilous stretch where the mosaferin become vulnerable to mines or attacks by bandits and Taliban insurgents.
Leaving Afghanistan for the third and what he hopes will be the last time, Farshad says his goodbyes to Kabul. Aware of all the risks that lie ahead of him on his migration to Europe, he feels compelled, “The travelling is very hard and dangerous. If it’s summer you can’t even find water to drink sometimes and if the army see us they shoot. Many people die in the cars and trucks because the smugglers are driving so fast. What I’m really worried about though is the water between Turkey and Yunan. I don’t feel good because I should stay in my own country but really there is no choice in life for me but to leave”.
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.