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Hunger, exhaustion and alleged abuse at the hands of Turkish authorities are only some of the hazards refugees say they’ve faced as they march west

Young Afghans rest on train tracks under a bridge near Tatvan, Turkey, as they journey to safety from the Taliban forces who conquered their homeland.Photography by Bradley Secker/The Globe and Mail

They emerge alongside a railway that snakes through the dry grass in the eastern Turkish city of Tatvan – dozens of Afghan refugees who have spent days walking under the scorching sun, desperate to escape the Taliban.

As the group of hungry, exhausted teen boys and young men reach the cool shade of a bridge, they collapse.

Some immediately find a place to fall asleep on slabs of concrete. Others sprawl out on the tracks, lay their heads against the rails, on one another – anything they can find. One boy lies down on a towel in the dirt, his head on a concrete block. All have left their families behind, and some say they don’t know if their relatives are still alive.

They are among the thousands who have fled their country since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Their journey to Turkey is dangerous and draining. Many who have made the trip described it to The Globe and Mail as an ordeal: walking for days without food or water, being attacked and robbed, sneaking past authorities – all to seek refuge in a country that will have them.

It can take as long as a month for Afghans to reach Turkey on foot via Iran. After they make it across the Turkish border, they spend days walking through villages, some stopping in the city of Van before heading up through the mountains to reach Tatvan, on the other side of Lake Van, then continuing onward. Istanbul is a final destination for many, but others want to continue on to Europe. Many describe walking for hours at a time, driving, then walking again, all under a smuggler’s watch.

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A boy wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, his black sneakers coated with dust, looks up from where he has been sleeping on the ground before another large group of boys and young men arrives. His eyes are bloodshot, and he looks startled.

The new group of mostly teens also stretches out on the tracks. Around noon, they pull out red tomatoes and pieces of bread.

Half a million Afghans have been displaced so far this year after the Taliban systematically overran the country, taking one provincial capital after another ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal. Most people are not able to leave the country through conventional means, according to the United Nations refugee agency. After the Taliban took Kabul, footage from the city’s airport included shocking images of people swarming the tarmac and clinging to a plane. Several people would die in the desperate attempt to escape the country.

A July statistical report from the UN refugee agency said Iran estimates that about 5,000 Afghans are entering that country each day. The agency said it has not seen “a significant increase in the number of Afghans moving irregularly onward to Turkey recently.”

“A slight uptick in new arrivals at the eastern border of Turkey with Iran has been reported by the media in recent weeks, though the number appear consistent with past trends,” it said.

The bridge near Tatvan offers the Afghans a place to rest and eat, leaving behind drink bottles, food containers and shoes as they continue the trek west.

The refugees who made it to Tatvan described, in some cases, hundreds of people at the border at one time.

Sharzad, a 13-year-old boy, said his trip took three months because he was tossed multiple times between Turkey and Iran. Sitting on the train tracks in his skinny jeans and brown polo shirt, he said that every time he and his friend reached the border, Turkish gendarmes would abuse them. They stripped them of their clothes and took their shoe laces, he said. One time, they ordered them to lie down.

“They were walking on us. This side and that side, just walking. They were walking on our bodies,” he said. “I was crying to police, ‘Leave me!’ They were hitting the gun on my head, saying, ‘Shut up.’ ” Sitting behind him, his friend said it happened to him, too.

After Sharzad was sent back to the Iranian border, he hid in a canal for hours, listening as Turkish police fired into the air. His smuggler brought him to the border, where there were more than 200 people trying to cross. As police started chasing and arresting people, he and a man from his village escaped. But “I lost all of my clothes in the barbed wire. Turkish people gave me the clothes I’m wearing,” he said.

He said his family fled their home in Jalalabad and went to Pakistan, but he decided to go to Europe in the hope of finding a job and supporting them. He was in the sixth grade before he fled and hopes to make it to Italy.

He urged countries to “pave the way for people of Afghanistan,” saying, “We are a passenger, but we are not guilty – if you cannot help us, please do not be cruel to us.”

Some refugees in Tatvan describe cases where hundreds of people tried to cross the border at once.

Turkey’s Directorate of Communications did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations.

But abuse by Turkish authorities has been well documented. Mahmut Kacan, a lawyer focusing on refugee and human-rights issues, said he has heard terrible stories from clients who are refugees.

“If they are apprehended on the border, all of their properties have been taken, their mobiles, money, even their shoes have been taken. And they are subjected to pushback as well” – sent back across the border, he told The Globe. “There are many people who have faced that.”

Mr. Kacan is currently representing the family members of 61 migrants who died trying to cross Lake Van in a boat last year, as well as the family of a young Afghan refugee who was tortured and killed in a removal centre in Van in 2014.

He says Afghans have been crossing into Turkey for decades and, because the trip can take a month or longer, the region may not see a major influx of people until September or October.

But “Afghans have been living in Turkey in limbo. They cannot enjoy their basic rights and they have been facing many difficulties during their stay in Turkey,” he said.

On Lake Van, mountains in the distance mark Turkey's border with Iran. Some Afghan border crossers have been driven back into Iran by Turkish authorities, only to try again later.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and more than 300,000 Afghans –182,000 registered migrants and about 120,000 unregistered ones – has made it clear to others seeking refuge that they are not welcome. However, the wall along the country’s border with Iran only covers a third of the 540-kilometre stretch, which leaves openings for refugees to run across.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reinforced his government’s position last week, saying in a speech that European countries must take responsibility for refugees from Afghanistan and that Turkey had no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit.”

Turkey isn’t the only country seeking to deter refugees from crossing its borders. Greece said last week that it had completed a 40-kilometre fence along its border with Turkey and has a new surveillance system to stop refugees from trying to reach Europe.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said in a statement last week that a significant number of Afghan nationals have already fled to neighbouring countries, adding, “We should work closely with the countries in the region and be ready to provide them with the necessary humanitarian and development assistance. We must step up our support as the situation evolves.”

Ms. Johansson said the EU has supported programs for displaced Afghans for years in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, particularly Iran and Pakistan.

“While we continue our work to address risks of irregular migration, fight against human smuggling and manage our borders effectively, we need to offer legal, safe and organized pathways toward the EU.”

She said she has called on EU member states to “step up their engagement on resettlement, to increase resettlement quotas to help those in need of international protection and to offer complementary legal pathways.”

So far, the U.K. has made a commitment to welcome as many as 5,000 refugees, while reports indicate Germany may accept as many as 10,000.

The Canadian government has indicated it will accept 20,000.

Many of the Afghan refugees who made it to Tatvan, said they were able to cross when there were large groups at the border.

Sayid, a 30-year-old Afghan man who also fled the Taliban, estimated there were 450 people at the border the night he crossed. He told The Globe that only about 25 were able to escape while the others were arrested.

He said that because he was a member of Afghanistan’s special forces, his family said it was too dangerous for him to stay home. He has a wife and five children in Kabul. As with other refugees in this story, The Globe is identifying him solely by his first name to protect him and his family.

“I had a newborn baby – he was four days old the day I left Afghanistan,” he said. “The people of the world, they need to know about the condition of Afghanistan, they need to do something to help.”

He said that as the Taliban were gaining ground, he would call his commander looking for help. “But nobody came.”

He described the perilous trip to Turkey, saying that when he reached Afghanistan’s border with Iran, he saw a woman who had died. She “was exhausted and gone,” he said. There were no women in his group, he said, because most travel with families by car.

Thousands of Afghans continue to gather outside Kabul's airport, waiting to flee the country. Reuters asked some people in the crowd if they believed the Taliban had changed.

Reuters

Over the course of his trip, he was robbed multiple times. The first time, armed men in Afghanistan held knives to their necks and demanded everyone hand over their money. When they arrived at the border between Iran and Turkey, his group was in a safe house when they were attacked again and forced to turn over their remaining belongings.

In Turkey, Sayid said he also saw authorities abusing Afghans they had arrested.

Once the group of about 25 reached Van, they walked for days to Tatvan, crossing the mountains to avoid military checkpoints on the road.

“If the police catch us, they will send us back to Iran, Iran will send us back to Turkey – it’s just passing people,” he said.

He said he borrowed $150 to buy a cellphone, but the night before he spoke with The Globe, thieves came and stole it.

“The smuggler said, ‘You have to stay in the valley and a car will come and take you to Istanbul.’ We went there, and thieves took all of our stuff, and I think it was a combination of thieves and smugglers working together,” he said.

Tonight, he and the other members of his group would sleep under a bridge, he said.

“During the night it gets cold. We have slept in dry canyons. We put grass on our feet and plastic garbage on ourselves to be warm during the night.”

Migrants must make do with the limited amounts of water and food they can buy or that sympathetic locals are willing to give them.

Sitting on a concrete ledge underneath the bridge, a group of friends from the same village in Kandahar were sprawled out. One was sleeping curled up, his head turned away, while the others were chatting.

A man named Mohammad was sitting with his bare feet dangling. He held up the bottoms of his feet, dirty and sore, and said he and his friends had been walking too much.

“When I escaped from Kandahar, the Taliban was there. We don’t know who is alive from our family. It’s not clear. My family separated out – my brothers, sister, father, mother. Are they alive or not? Where are they even? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s really awful. It’s not a good feeling every day they are killing us.”

The 32-year-old said he wants his country to be safe and free of war. “Let people have a peaceful life.”

On the same concrete ledge, Luqman, 22, said the group had walked through mountains without food or water for four days. “God willing, we will come out,” they would say. He said they appreciated the local Turkish people who had given them food and water along the way.

In Kandahar, he was working at a shop selling vegetables and sometimes worked as a driver. Now, he, too, didn’t know where his family was or if they were alive. He said he was one of four brothers, but the Taliban kidnapped and killed one of his brothers because his father refused to pay the daily ransom.

“I appeal to the people worldwide: Pay attention for us and do the best support and co-operation for the refugees.”

Van is a key point for those crossing to Europe by land from central and southern Asia.

While many refugees will make this same trip from a border village in eastern Turkey to Van, Tatvan and onward, some are hiding in small apartments across Van, waiting and hoping for help.

In an empty flat tucked behind busy shops, a family of six sat together on a carpet. As one-year-old Samma cried wildly, it was hard to imagine how this family made the trip.

The father, Omid Sulaymanzada, said some days they walked for hours. When they reached the Iranian-Turkish border, they crossed through a deep valley at about 3 a.m. and made it to the other side and into Turkey.

He said his family paid a smuggler $5,000 to take them to Istanbul, but once they reached Turkey they were left on the street. A Turkish man showed them mercy, he said, and gave them a place to stay.

“We are hiding here. It’s hard for us to go outside … we rent this house without any rules,” said the mother, Roya Sulaymanzada.

Mr. Sulaymanzada said he hopes the United Nations refugee agency will help people fleeing Afghanistan.

“My message for people is: People need to come now,” he said, speaking of Afghans who are now living under the Taliban’s rule.

“They are brutal. I remember 20 years ago they promised, ‘We will not do anything wrong with the people. Everything is okay.’ After a while, they started cutting legs and hands. It’s the same thing. It won’t change.”

A graveyard mostly for Afghans, not far from the city’s bustling streets, serves as a grim reminder of how arduous the journey to Turkey is – that not everyone makes it. The headstones have no names, marked instead with numbers, row upon row among tall dry grass and weeds.

Some of them say “bebek” – the Turkish word for “baby.”

With reports from Mohammad Mahdi Sultani, the Associated Press and Reuters

In Van, a 'cemetery of the unclaimed' reminds visitors of the deadly risks Afghans face entering Turkey.

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