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Fatima’s Fate: An Escape Bid That Ended in Tragedy

Desperate decisions on the road to refuge left a young Afghan mother disabled, bereaved and stranded. Her story illustrates the appalling risks Afghan refugees are taking in the face of rising European asylum rejections and deportations.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Afghan migrants in Piraues, Greece. AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

When Fatima Bakhshi awoke, her first thought was for her children. She did not know where she was, where her two boys were, or what had happened to her mother. Then she realized she could not feel her legs.

It would be days before she could emerge from the haze of painkillers to recall the final frantic moments before the crash, which occurred in Serbia. The 29-year-old from Kabul had been crammed with another 14 people into a Volkswagen Passat with its back seat ripped out. Fatima had been crouching with her mother Nadia behind her, and her boys were on their grandmother’s lap.

In broken English, Fatima had pleaded with the driver to slow down as the vehicle began to veer between lanes at high speed. She remembered panicked shouting inside the car, and then nothing.

When she regained consciousness, Fatima found herself in a hospital bed in the Serbian city of Niš. An English-speaking doctor told her that after complications and an infection following an initial surgery, her legs had to be amputated above the knee.

For now, Fatima’s desperate attempt to get herself and her family away from Afghanistan has come to a brutal halt in Niš, the city closest to the fatal crash that occurred when the smuggler, fearing interception by the police, veered off the road into a barrier.

The collision occurred on December 28, and Fatima spent days without news of her children and mother, as the authorities initially had no way of establishing the identity of the survivors. Two adults and one child had died, but the driver from the smuggling gang was nowhere to be found.

After an agonizing wait, she discovered that her two sons, Ahmed, 4, and Shohaib, 9, had survived the wreck with broken bones, cuts and bruises, and were being treated in a different facility. Her 59-year-old mother, Nadia, had not survived.

Known to friends as Naji, Fatima did not take the decision to leave Kabul and travel to Europe lightly. It was done with the support of her mother, who had watched Fatima suffer at the hands of both her father and an abusive husband. Fatima’s father, Nadia’s husband, was an “oppressive and violent man,” she would later confide to friends in Greece. Of Fatima’s two sisters, one migrated to Germany while the other committed suicide in Afghanistan some years ago by pouring gasoline over herself and setting herself alight.

Fatima’s husband proved to be violent, and the pair eventually divorced in 2015 after he began to use heroin. Even after the separation, the man’s family continued to harass and threaten her, prompting their decision to flee the Afghan capital.

After an ordeal experienced by hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, the four members of the Bakhshi family reached Europe via a rubber dinghy, landing on the Greek island of Lesbos in March 2016.

Their arrival came after the closure of Greece’s northern borders. Fatima and her family found themselves in limbo in the Athens refugee camp of Elaionas.

It was in Athens that the Bakhshis became involved with the Melissa Network, which supports refugee and migrant women. “Fatima taught herself English during her journey, over the period of the past nine months, something she takes great pride in,” said Nadina Christopoulou, the head of Melissa, who is marshaling efforts to help Fatima in Serbia. “This was appreciated by all our members, who saw the resilience and determination of these women to create a better life for themselves and the little children.”

Their late arrival in Greece, after more than 1 million refugees and migrants transited the country in 2015, left the Bakhshi family facing an asylum lottery in which Afghans are increasingly the losers. Throughout Europe the rate of recognition for asylum claims for Afghans has been plunging faster than for any other nationality. Where Germany recognized 72 percent of asylum claims from Afghans in 2015, a year later that rate dropped to 56 percent. In Norway, the rate plummeted over the same time period from 82 percent to 30 percent. In Greece, where Fatima applied, recognition dropped from 61 percent to 49 percent last year. The family had strong reasons to fear rejection and deportation.

It was with this in mind that Fatima and Nadia took the fateful decision to skip Elaionas after their neighbors at the camp told them they had decided to use smugglers to continue their journey. The mother and daughter quickly packed the essential items, giving the rest to friends in the camp. For the cost of a little over $3,000, they were told they would be smuggled out of Greece and driven across FYROM and Serbia into Hungary. Their eventual destination was in Ireland with Nadia’s two brothers, Farooq and Zakhrie Bakhshi.

Farooq heard reports of Afghans being killed in a crash in Serbia, but had no idea his relatives had left Greece. When he got a call from a doctor in Serbia, he began to look for his loved ones and some answers there.

Farooq, an engineer, arrived in Niš at midnight on January 3, after boarding a bus from Belgrade. With no idea where Fatima was and finding no English speakers, Farooq was forced to speak the little Russian he still knew from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to try and communicate.

By the time he found Fatima’s doctor, Zoran Radovanovic, at the Niš Clinical Center, another half day had passed.

“I asked her what had happened but it took two or three days for her to be able to explain,” said Farooq. “I told her not to worry about anything, now with technology we can make anything. We can make legs.”

Farooq, who has since returned to Ireland, also tracked down Ahmed and Shohaib. They had only been able to speak to their mother by phone and were in deep shock. Ahmed had a broken arm and leg and was still in considerable pain.

“They told me that everything went dark and they didn’t know what happened. They thought they had gone to another world.”

The two uncles are now determined to reunite the family in Ireland. It is unlikely to be simple.

Afghan refugees from Germany, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe are facing deportation in increasing numbers, while those in Pakistan and Iran are being coerced by the hundreds of thousands to return to a country still at war. Last year was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 2001. Some 620,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside its borders.

The Bakhshi brothers are only too familiar with war. Zekhrie was threatened by the Taliban following his work as a fixer with the BBC journalist John Simpson. Dr. Zak, as he is known, worked as a translator on a number of high-profile stories including the Afghan girl photo by Steve McCurry. After being given refuge in Ireland, he completed his medical studies at Trinity College Dublin. He now practices medicine and is ready and willing to sponsor his niece and grandnephews if Irish authorities will let him.

“My heart is crying now that we didn’t do enough to prevent this,” said Zekhrie. “We knew what was happening, they were running away from brutality and war. We wanted them to get here and be with us, and had faith that they were safe under U.N. protection in Greece, and that through them we would eventually reunite.”

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