Rubbish clutters the entrance to a narrow backstreet in Istanbul’s downtown Kumkapi district. Derelict houses crumble down the hillside where exposed stairwells lead nowhere. Little traffic ventures down this dead-end or through the doors of the dimly lit Regal Hotel, hidden away at the furthest extent of this blind alley. In the net curtained modern lobby, an Afghan smuggler who doubles up his work in Kabul’s Ministry of Defence, sits in a bruise coloured salwar khamees chatting in Farsi with a Kurdish counterpart. The majority of the passengers holed-up at the hotel have just arrived from Afghanistan and in the upper rooms, boys like fifteen year old Fayaz are being held captive, “When I arrived in Istanbul the smugglers kept me for twenty-two days. We stayed in a room at the Regal and weren’t allowed to go outside. The place looked official but it was just for illegal travellers. Three other Afghan boys were also kept in my room and there was a young African child who was kidnapped like us. One of the agents was always on the door and they told us that they were armed. All we could do was to walk the corridors and the whole place was really cold. I remember one day that I managed to go up to the roof with the other boys, looking out to sea trying to plan an escape but there was no way out. We were all so anxious and cried a lot”.
Just a few days after completing one of the most challenging stages on the long overland journey towards Europe, the dangerous snow covered peaks of the PKK controlled mountains give way to darkness. New arrivals are kidnapped on a daily basis in Istanbul as the criminal gangs attempt to extort more money from the human cargo they are shifting. Left unpaid by agents further back down the line or conning families into believing that their sons have already arrived in Europe, the children are kept tied-up for weeks in clandestine hotels and hidden dungeons. “As soon as I arrived the agent took me to a place that was underground. There were around forty of us from Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of the men had been there for more than two months. He had already tried twice to go to Greece and because he had not paid the money they were not even giving him food or water; all he could do was to keep praying. There were three guards for all the passengers and almost no place to sleep or to sit down. The place smelt terrible and was totally wet and dirty. It was basically a prison where they charged people to stay… Turkey is a really dangerous place to travel for young Afghans”. For teenagers like Manan, the lights of the big city are a world away from the subterranean life they now face. The mosaferin in Istanbul rarely see the light of day.
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.