Wearing an over-sized salwar kameez and a prayer cap, the agent flicks back his long hair and gets up from the table to go outside into the street to light up a joint. His two even larger colleagues sit playing with their cigarette packets, backed by a wall covered with the sawn, varnished ends of tree trucks that give the smoky café a seventies forest effect. Unable to read the faded Hellenic sign that sits above the glass frontage, the Pashtun mafia’s hang out is known only after the public call office located across the street. On a junction in the seedy, downtown neighbourhood of Omonia, the anonymous café is where the Afghan boys in Athens hang out.
Leaning against a railing that is surrounded by piles of stinking garbage, fourteen year old Majid is under the spell of a smuggler who lends him an arm around the shoulder. Teenagers flick through the messages in their mobile phones, muttering quietly around the back of a van selling cheap vegetables, hoping that they might also catch the eyes of one of the big men. Rumours are circulating that prices to leave Greece in a container have risen by five hundred Euros and that anyone wanting to go to Germany or Belgium must sit tight for a few weeks. From the tables inside where the gangs of smugglers perch each afternoon, there is an all round view of the goings on. Looking through the broken perimeter of a metal fence that surrounds the site of a now demolished building, they watch over to a narrow alleyway, to the Mafia Hotel.
Heading back from prayers at an underground mosque, a group of boys make their way up the narrow side street. Sticking close to a wall, they divert their gaze from an agent wielding a plank of wood who is beating a Bengali man accused of stealing from inside one of his rooms. Squatting down in short skirts, three young women taking a break from working the pavements, clearing a spot on this one to snort lines of speed from the dirty ground. The boys rush through the always-open doors and into the lobby of the unmarked six-storey apartment block. Fluorescent bulbs cast a putrid light on the bright yellow walls that are sprayed randomly with Xs around the single broken-down elevator. It is a hard push to climb up the winding stairs past the teens who started smoking upon reaching Europe. “It’s not possible to smoke in Afghanistan but now we are here in Athens we have all started to relieve the tension. The people here at the hotel are in the middle stage; they start drinking and taking drugs so they can forget their dreams”. Standing around the corridors etched with residents’ names and a sign reading the Flowers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a brief escape from the overcrowded bedsits.
Apartments that were formerly home to immigrant families from Somalia and the Maghreb have been subdivided into smaller lots. Behind doors that are marked with blood red Arabic numerals, every room is temporarily home to up to fifteen Pashtun men and boys who each pay five Euros a night to a middleman for their board and the most basic of meals. There are few facilities and little comfort. Showering over badly plumbed toilet cubicles, water seeps out onto thin pile carpets that the boys must sleep on under shared blankets. Portable gas stoves propped by the entranceways are the only means with which to cook on and make saucepans-full of green tea that is habitually drunk day and night. Waiting weeks or month for money to be sent from Afghanistan to continue their clandestine journeys, there is little to do but to sit staring at the DVDs of Pashtun movies and dancing ladies with beckoning hands that play constantly on the television sets. Slouched under pictures of Afghan moguls and Mecca, the days spent in transit after the dramas of their long journeys give way to boredom.
At the rear of the building in apartment number thirty-five, Majid sits picking up chicken bones from the floor discarded over lunch by the longhaired agent. While the older boys half-heartedly try to fix the curtained-off broken toilet, Majid remains passive, glancing up only occasionally to reveal his green eyes, heavy with kohl. It has been seven months now that the orphan from war torn Eastern Afghanistan has been stuck at the Mafia Hotel, fated to end up sexually exploited as a toy for the bacha bazi. Majid heads out to a shack extended out from the back of the flat to sit on the only chair under a roof of laundry, his bearing typical of the younger boys at the hotel. “My mind is in London. I don’t have a father so I’m the one responsible for my family now but I’m stuck here. I’m without papers and I’m so scared I will be sent back to Afghanistan because of the shame of the money I spent getting to Europe”. As evening approaches he ignores the bustle in the corridors as the teens camped out in a shack on the roof head out for the hundred-metre stroll back to the mosque or the mafia. still sat in the café by the PCO.
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.