Alixandra Fazzina Photographs the Flight of the 'Flowers of Afghanistan'

6 minute read

In 2008, photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina, who lives in Pakistan, began to stumble across stories of young Afghan refugees, children who were fleeing the country for Europe. Soon after she noticed the phenomenon, she visited a refugee camp in Afghanistan, where she witnessed the funeral of a boy who had died trying to cross from Turkey to Greece. Then, on the same visit, at a hospital, she met a boy who had lost his legs—not as she initially assumed, from a land mine, but as a consequence of having been kidnapped and tortured when trying to go west. “All the time he just kept saying he wanted to get the Europe again, despite the risks. He was just so convinced that there was absolutely no future for him as a young Afghan,” Fazzina says. The last time she saw him was in Greece, where he had again fled, the second time losing the prosthetic legs he had needed after his first attempt at emigration. “He was very lucky to survive that far, and he wasn’t done yet.”

The phenomenon that Fazzina observed first-hand was soon confirmed by statistics. The photographer noted a 64% jump in the number of underage Afghan refugees applying for asylum in Europe in 2010. With money that came that same year with her recognition by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as the first journalist to win the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, along with the support of the Norwegian government, Fazzina began a project to document the hardships faced by young people making that journey from Afghanistan.

That project, Flowers of Afghanistan, is now about one-third completed; Fazzina is planning to continue her work in Iran, Pakistan and Italy in the coming months. “When the U.S. leaves, we’re on the brink of civil war,” she says. “It’s very important to me to be highlighting this at this point in time. It’s very important for people to realize that Afghanistan isn’t a success story.”

Although Fazzina had intended to follow the boys—and the very few girls who make the trip—along the road, photographing them, she has found that the journeys are rarely linear. Before they leave home, the boys hide their travel plans, often even from their parents; smugglers, Fazzina says, warn them that to tell will cast a jinn, a bad spirit, on their travels. And once they leave home, false starts are likely; kidnapping is frequent and deportation is a possibility even for children who seek asylum. Instead, Fazzina says she relies on networks and word of mouth, and perhaps the trust that is more easily won by a woman, to find the refugees at each stop along the way. She says that even smugglers, once they hear about her project, will reach out and provide information about their whereabouts. “Of course I want to see them traveling, but I’m not interested in photographing the smugglers themselves, so a lot of what I’ve been getting has been, in photography terms, very quiet pictures,” she says. Her photos from the series are often dark, capturing a moment of furtive rest or a person who must stay in the shadows, but stillness and gloom does not mean calm. “When I take a step back,” she says, “I often wonder if people really understand how dangerous it was.”

And the more time Fazzina has spent in that shadowy world, the clearer the patterns have become. About half the boys, she says, are fatherless due to war or sickness, thrusting them into positions of responsibility in their families. They are from the least stable provinces in the country. Recently, she met some children in Peshawar who had given up or been deported back to Afghanistan, and noticed another level of pattern. “I started to talk to them about the journey, and it was the same places, the same hotels they were held hostage in,” she says. “It’s very shocking and repetitive.”

Even though Fazzina has rarely been able to literally follow the boys she photographs, she has found that there’s a virtual way to keep track of them: through their own photographs, on Facebook. “I see a boy I’ve met and his pictures of himself in Athens, taken with fast cars and in tourist locations and in borrowed clothes, whereas the reality was he was living in a hotel, like a squat, that was being run by the smuggling mafia, full of prostitutes and drugs. It was a million miles from the pictures he showed,” she says. Unfortunately, that brave face can encourage others to try to make the dangerous journey themselves.

She once tried to make those photos that the boys take of themselves into something more true. One 16-year-old she met was passionate about photography. He was, she says, a “genius” at it. He wanted to be a filmmaker. After he survived for six days in a trucking container and arrived in Rome, Fazzina tried to get a camera to him through her colleagues in Italy. By that time he had left for Paris. They spoke by phone. He said that he had been told that he was too old when he went to a children’s home and that he was too young when he went to a refuge for adults. He was sleeping on the streets, in the winter, in the snow. She still hadn’t gotten a camera to him. He didn’t call again. “He just moved on. He disappeared. I have no idea what happened to him,” she says. “I am fearful what his fate is.”

Alixandra Fazzina is a British photojournalist. She is represented by NOOR Images and is the 2010 recipient of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. More information about Flowers of Afghanistan is available here.

March, 2012. Abrishem, Afghanistan.Captured by Iranian soldiers while on the clandestine journey west with smugglers, 13-year-old Muhibullah has spent the last four nights in a detention centre. Deported back to Abrishem, Muhibullah stands on the windswept desert border, cold and tired. Searching out a cheap hotel for the night, like hundreds of others deported each day, the group is bound to seek out their smuggler once again. It will be a matter of days before they make the long and dangerous migration back to Iran.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
March 2012. Zaranj, Afghanistan.An Uzbek middleman makes his ablutions outside the mosafer khana where he works in Zaranj. Facilitating groups of young men and boys arriving from Afghanistan's northerly mountain provinces, such middlemen deliver their travelers to the smugglers who ply the local hotels.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Jan. 2012. Istanbul.Pulling a fully laden cart of rubbish that weighs more than 50 kg, 16-year-old Nizam rushes through the streets of Zeytinburnu at the end of the weekly Sunday bazaar. In search of metal, plastic and paper that can be recycled, Nizam earns around twenty cents per cart, filling just two per day on his long walks around suburban Istanbul. "I just had to leave Afghanistan for so many reasons," he says. "I don't know where in the world is Turkey or Europe; I'm just going in search of a better life."Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Jan. 2012. Istanbul.Under the hum of fluorescent strip lights, 16-year-old Danesh wields an oversized pair of sheers, snipping away a small pieces of animal fur in the freezing cold basement kargah that has been his home for the past two months. From war-torn Kapisa province, the boy, whose name means knowledge, stays constantly alert, absorbing everything that the others say and do. With every member of his family killed, Danesh has educated himself on his travels, spending four years alone on the road west that his brought him this far to the dirty factories of Istanbul. Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Oct. 2011. Athens, Greece. Giving thanks to God for the plates of chicken and rounds of thin Arab bread they have just shared, 11-year-old Baseer and his roommates raise their hands in prayer, squashed tightly around a plastic sheet on the floor. Cooped up in a tiny yellow bedsit, 12 teenage Afghan boys share the basic, rented space at the dirty Mafia Hotel located in the backstreets of Athen's Omonia district. Baseer is bound for Norway.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Oct. 2011. Thiva, Greece.As heavy rains continue to lash the surrounding landscape, 15-year-old Najeeb spends the day with the other men and boys, resting under blankets and sleeping bags to keep warm. Short of funds to pay the smugglers for his onward journey, Najeeb has spent the last four months in Thiva picking up casual work in the surrounding farms. As the weather takes a turn for the worse and any opportunity to make money fades away, the young boy from Baghlan has little choice but to sit out the winter in miserable conditions.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Oct. 2011. Thiva, Greece.Surrounded by fallow fields, this bleak spot at the edge of the run-down agricultural center north of Athens has become a diversion on the trail leading to Western Europe. Squatting in miserable conditions within the shell of the derelict hospital and in surrounding farm houses and factories, hundreds of Afghans unable to pay their way with the smugglers have become stranded at this dead end spot.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Oct. 2011. Patras, Greece.Fiddling with his mobile phone, 17-year-old Murtaza sits with his head in his hand under a shelter hemmed into the exterior walls of a derelict beach club on the edge of Patras. Rucksacks and shopping bags hang from a roof covered with a salvaged truck tarpaulin that provides shelter to twenty other Afghan teenagers squatting at the illegal camp while in transit to Western Europe. "There is no way for me to work anymore in Afghanistan because of the instability. I'm a mechanic but the Taliban caught me on the road and kidnapped me for fifteen days; they said that I had been working with the trucks used by the Americans," he says. "After that there was no other way for me so my uncle paid a smuggler $4,500 to send me to Europe."Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Nov. 2011. Patras, Greece.Spending a freezing evening waiting along the Athens Road on the outskirts of Patras at the so called Italy Stop, a group of around 20 Afghan teenagers run after a truck making its way to the Venice-bound midnight ferry. Hoping to open the lorry's back doors as it slows down for a red traffic light at an intersection, the boys are taking a very slim and dangerous chance as they bet their lives on a future in Western Europe.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR
Feb. 2012. Kabul, Afghanistan.Paid up with the smugglers to Turkey, a group of teenage boys sit up on a carpeted platform with their bags. Aged between 14 and 18, the teenagers from Baghlan are spending a cold night transiting through Afghanistan's capital as they wait for a coach that will take them south to Kandahar from which they will cross through Pakistan's Balochistan province and on to Iran.Alixandra Fazzina—NOOR

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