Fatima Bakhshi stays close to her mother and two sons, afraid she might lose them as they trudge through the cold Balkan darkness. The smuggler they've paid to escort them safely into Western Europe orders them to squeeze into a car with more than a dozen other migrants.
Bakhshi, the boys in her lap, is crammed so tightly in the back that she can barely breathe. The driver swerves and she yells at him to stop. Other migrants snap at her to keep quiet and she dozes off. All she wants is a new life with relatives in Ireland, away from a brutish husband and a controlling father back in Afghanistan.
In an instant, on a road in southern Serbia, the 26-year-old's dream turns into a nightmare. The car hits a barrier and overturns, killing Bakhshi's mother and another person. Bakhshi's younger son is hurt, and she is so badly wounded that her legs must be amputated above the knees.
"I wake up in the hospital, I see I didn't have feet, there is doctors," Bakhshi says in broken English. "Where is my mother? Where is my feet? I am calling, crying, all the time I am crying."
Bakhshi's tragedy highlights the dangers facing migrants — particularly women — who rely on smugglers to take them on dangerous journeys through Central and Eastern Europe in hopes of finding new lives in more prosperous countries to the west. She doesn't remember many details of her journey and finds others too hard to talk about, including how they found the smuggler and how much they paid. The driver of the car fled and it's not clear if he was ever found.
Life of abuse
Tens of thousands of people remain stranded across the Balkans after countries throughout Europe last year tightened migration rules and border controls. Most are fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East or Africa.
Bakhshi fled a life of abuse in Afghanistan. When she was 16, her father pulled her out of school to marry a man 10 years her senior whom she had never seen before. She says he turned out to be a drug addict who harassed her and beat her severely.
A year ago, she tried to leave her abusive husband and return to her parents' home, but her father wouldn't take her in. Her mother decided to help her get away.
The two set off with the boys, now ages 5 and 9. Details of the journey are hazy, but Bakhshi recalls that they first went to Pakistan, then to Iran, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. They spent eight months in a refugee camp in Greece, then were detained and pushed back to Greece once from Macedonia, before finally reaching Serbia in December.
"It's very hard. You don't understand because you don't see," Bakhshi said of the ordeal. "It's very hard [on] my feet, walking to mountain and from Iran to Turkey. It's very hard."
"I come here with my mother, I think I'll be happy with my kids and then I had accident in car," she said.
More than three months after the Dec. 29 crash, Bakhshi is now out of the hospital, staying in a small care home in the village of Doljevac, in southern Serbia. She has started a rehabilitation program that should result in prosthetic limbs. Her children are well, by her side.
Only one wish
Faced with her immense loss, bed-ridden and desperate, Bakhshi speaks in a hushed, low voice, smiling only at the sight of her boys playing nearby. She said her only wish remains to join her mother's brother and other relatives in Ireland so her children can have a future in a larger family.
"I don't want to live, I live just for my kids," she said sadly, bowing her head. "Before I liked learning. Now it's very hard. I just sleep."
The United Nations refugee agency in Serbia, the UNHCR, has declared Bakhshi a refugee and offered to help resettle her in an as-yet-undecided third country where she can have access to better treatment than in impoverished Serbia. But the agency cannot guarantee it will be Ireland.
"This depends on the quotas that are at hand," said Davor Rako, an associate protection officer for the UNHCR. "At this point in time, unfortunately, Ireland does not have a quota for UNHCR, for settlement."
Vladimir Bogosavljevic, a psychologist with Indigo, a group for children and youth that also works with migrants, has worked with Bakhshi and her children. He said he hopes to enroll the boys in a local school, but that the family is anxious not to separate at all. Bogosavljevic appealed to "people of good will and in high places" to help Bakhshi and the boys join their relatives in Ireland because "so far that is her only wish."
"It's important to give her hope," he said.
Bakhshi said that for her, Ireland also means a connection to her late mother, whom she considers the only friend she's ever had.
"Always my mother helped me. Why my mother died?" she sobbed. "I had just mother in life. Why is like this, why?"