He is one of thousands of underage refugees who hope to get to Germany following the "Balkan Route." Most come from Afghanistan and have been sent off by their parents. Barbara Wesel reports from Belgrade.
The scene playing out in this Belgrade park where hundreds of refugees meet every day near the train station seems almost quotidian. The place is a stopping point along the "Balkan Route" and a group of young Afghans is kicking a rather deflated soccer ball through the wet grass; among them, a skinny boy in a red jacket. He jumps and laughs as if he hadn't a care in the world. Yet, Ateeq had to complete an incredible journey before making it to Serbia. A few countrymen have taken him under their wing and to his great fortune, he met Nasir in Macedonia, who now looks after him like a brother.
"My parents are in Afghanistan, there is always fighting going on there and we cannot go to school," explains Ateeq. "They sent me off and now I am here." How old is he? Twelve, maybe thirteen, he isn't sure. He's a scrawny kid, about shoulder high. His companion Nasir recounts what the boy has been through: "He traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, then across the border into Iran, and then to Turkey, where he crossed the mountains into Bulgaria on foot." He reports that in Bulgaria, Ateeq and fellow refugees were bullied by police, and then finally arrived in Belgrade. A journey of some 6,000 kilometers (3,800 miles) through much of the Middle East, by bus and on foot.
Nasir himself is in his early twenties and comes from Kabul, Ateeq's family lives outside the capital. "They are poor farmers with a small piece of land, but they have too many children to feed. They want to give at least one of their sons the chance to find a better life," explains Nasir. Many fear that the Taliban will take away their boys.
You have to be brave
I ask Ateeq if he ever gets scared. "You have to be strong, and you have to fight," the young boy tells me with a steely facial expression. He says you cannot get scared when things get tough. One hears the voice of his father, who told him that he would have to become a man as they said goodbye. Nasir says that Ateeq doesn't want to admit how grueling the journey was for him at times.
The long march through the forests of Bulgaria was especially tough, and the journey through Iran before that as well. "We called his parents for him once along the way, because he said he couldn't carry on and wanted to turn back. But his parents said no, and told us to take him with us," says Nasir. Aid workers have set up a tent in the park. There refugees can get hot soup and jelly sandwiches. It is a feast for Ateeq. "The food here is really good," he says, as he explains that while he was traveling he had to survive on dried crackers and water. His favorite dish at home is "Pilao," rice with mutton. His eyes light up as he talks about it.
In Belgrade, the group of young Afghans rests for a day in a tent put up by an aid organization. But they are also preparing for the next leg of their journey. Later in the evening they will board a bus that will take them to the Croatian border. Nasir is also unaware that they will have to get past three more borders before they finally arrive in Germany. But they are not worried about the rest of the journey, the worst of it is already behind them.
All of them get out their backpacks and begin stuffing in their belongings. Ateeq has little more than a t-shirt, a pair of socks and a few cookies with him.
Then he reaches down into the very bottom of his bag and pulls out a pair of snow white sneakers. They have never been worn and are his prize possession, because his parents packed them for him. He is saving them for Germany, and for his new life there. Before that the boy desperately needs to find a warm sweater, as the nights here are very cold. Nasir takes him to a bus where another aid organization is handing out clothes.
No telling when he'll see his family again
Most likely, Ateeq will not see his family for the next few years. The family is too poor to visit, and he has no idea what awaits him in Germany. "I want to go to school and learn something." That is his dream and all he can say on the subject.
"He knows Germany from television that his parents thought it would be the right place for him," explains Nasir. Every few days someone in the group lets him borrow a cellphone so that he can call home. But that is his only contact with his family. As darkness falls, the group heads off toward the bus stop. The trip only costs ten euros (11 dollars). Ateeq's companions have somehow always managed to get enough money together for him to keep traveling with them.
What will happen next? Ateeq shrugs his shoulders and looks up at his older friend: "I don't know what's going to happen either, but Inschallah we'll get him to Germany," promises Nasir. Once there, others will decide what will become of him.