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Harrowing stories of survival in Serbian refugee camp

To mark Christian Aid week Allison Morris tells of the work being carried out by the charity to help alleviate the suffering of civilians caught up in some of the world's worst conflicts

Hakima Hussein, 33, and her daughter, Zahara, 7, travelled from Afghanistan and are now living in Presevo refugee camp in southern Serbia.

Horrific pictures of young children writhing in agony and gasping for air after a chemical weapon attack in Syria and the 'Mother of all bombs' being dropped in southern Afghanistan are among some of the most harrowing images from war zones beamed into our homes in recent months.

They bring into sharp focus the ongoing threat to civilians caught up in conflicts in those war-torn countries.

Recent estimations are that more than 465,000 people have been killed and 12 million displaced in the civil war that has ravaged Syria since 2011. In 2014 the war spread across the border to Iraq.

All political attempts to end the conflict have failed and thousands of civilians continue to flee, only to find themselves on the perilous refugee trails in search of a safer life.

Earlier this year, with the weather still bitingly cold, I travelled to Belgrade and then later the town of Presevo with Christian Aid to speak to those at the sharp end of the crisis and see the work the charity and their partners are doing to help alleviate suffering and give some dignity back to those who have lost everything.

While the closure of Europe's borders last March reduced the migration of people, the humanitarian crisis remains critical.

The so called 'Balkan trail' is the route used by refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

Daily life in Presevo refugee camp, in southern Serbia. Currently home to over 800 refugees, it occupies a former factory where dormitories have been set up with bunkbeds, mostly organised by nationality and families/single men.

More than 7,000 refugees are estimated to be currently in Serbia, although that figure can fluctuate.

It's the largest displacement of people since the Second World War and the consequences are enormous.

The majority of refugees make their way to Turkey and then the perilous boat journey to Greece.

Once in mainland Europe they walk with what possessions they can carry, most speak of hopes of a new life in refugee friendly countries such Austria, Germany or Sweden.

The journey the refugees have taken is almost impossible to make alone, as a result people trafficking, an industry fuelled on misery, has become big business.

Growing up in a conflict situation here in Northern Ireland can harden a person, but listening first hand to stories of those who had made the perilous journey was a deeply emotional experience.

Food distribution in Bujanovac camp, Christian Aid partners, Philanthropy provides hot meals and fruit for residents of the camp each evening.

Hakima Hussein, planned to leave Afghanistan with her entire family to escape the grip of the Taliban. However a trafficker the family had paid €4,000 to, had different plans.

Hakima had been involved in a traffic accident many years ago and as a result has metal rods in her legs. The rafficker split the family up, promising to transport the 33-year-old and her seven year old daughter Zahara by car, while her husband and two other children made their way on foot.

She soon found out there was no transport. Tears stream down her face as she relives the horror of the journey, walking hundreds of miles on painful, damaged limbs.

Her daughter crying and begging her to walk just a little further as the group they were joined with disappeared into the dark night.

Hakima tells us she struggled to keep up, her daughter collapsing with exhaustion and hunger. "I needed to be there for her, but she was there for me," she says.

The two eventually made it to Turkey and tried to get to Greece, crossing in a rubber dingy organised by a trafficker. It sank in the middle of the sea in the dead of night. It is the same crossing hundreds of refugees have died trying to make since the crisis began.

"I held my daughter's hand. I said if we live or die we will be together," she said. After an hour in the water they were rescued by volunteers. "My daughter won't talk about it", she says, recalling the nightmare ordeal.

"She was so brave then, she's not now. She wakes at night screaming," she adds.

Hakima Hussein, 33, and her daughter, Zahara, 7, travelled from Afghanistan and are now living in Presevo refugee camp in southern Serbia.

Hakima's husband and two older children made it to Austria where they were granted asylum. But with her youngest daughter she remains trapped in Serbia.

She has provided United Nations High Commission for Refugees with papers showing she's married and the children in Austria are hers, and now has no choice other that to waits to hear whether she can join them.

"I cannot even take a single step further. I have suffered a lot. I cannot do it again, so I'm told just to wait my turn, for sure it is hard to wait, but maybe a miracle will happen," she says.

Christian Aid is working with the Serbian charity Philanthropy on a number of projects to give comfort and some dignity back to those who have lost everything.

Along with other families in the camp Hakima gets a cash card funded by Christian Aid once a month. The €40 allowance lets her to buy small treats for Zahara. "She likes lolly pops," she tells us.

Having her own money gives her back the dignity she thought she'd lost and brings a little light and joy to her daughter's life.

As Christian Aid marks 60 years of Christian Aid Week, the organisation is inviting people to join them in standing in solidarity with refugees around the world.

You could help to change the lives of refugees fleeing conflict and crisis this Christian Aid Week by donating online at www.caweek.org calling 08080 006 006, or texting ‘GIVE’ to 70040 to give £5.

Hakima Hussein, 33, who is trapped in Serbia with her seven-year-old daughter, while her husband and two children have been granted asylum in Austria.

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