(CNN) -- Roughly etched onto Brian's arm is a swastika tattoo.
Brian's sinister-looking tattoo is etched into his skin
The 11-year-old says his 10-year-old friend Temashi spent two days "scratching" the image onto his skin with a match stick.
It only hurt a little bit, said Brian, one of thousands of Zimbabwean children who have fled their ravaged homeland for what they hope will be a better life in South Africa.
For Brian and his friend, the symbol of the swastika does not represent the horrors of Hitler and the Holocaust.
Instead, they say the ominous jagged lines on their arms mean "Germans never surrender."
It is a twisted interpretation that, however misguided, gives strength to Brian, marking him as a "man" and "someone who does not surrender," he said quietly in a soft voice. Watch the boys explain what the tattoos mean to them »
Brian and his young compatriots from Zimbabwe are on their own in a new country. Charities such as Save the Children and UNICEF classify them as "unaccompanied minors," but those words do not begin to describe their situation.
They endure unimaginable hardships traveling to South Africa by themselves or with small groups of friends. They hitch rides on trucks, trains and taxis.
Brian and his friends told CNN that when they got to the South African border at Beitbridge authorities let them walk through without passports or other documents.
They then made their way to the border town of Musina, where boys beg on the streets or work on farms, and girls seem to disappear into South African society.
UNICEF representative Shantha Bloemen said many Zimbabwean girls either turn to prostitution or work as domestic servants.
Nearly all of the children -- some younger than 10 -- leave Zimbabwe because they hope their life will be better in South Africa. They said hunger, non-functioning schools and poverty were the reasons they left.
Many are orphans, while some have parents, but they all dislike Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime -- a government that has left them with no choice but to abandon their homes and join the exodus south.
A quarter of Zimbabwe's population has fled the country, mostly to neighboring South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique, humanitarian groups said.
The United Nations and Save the Children, which has an office based in Musina, report there has been a troubling increase in the number of children under 18 years old who are making the risky journey south from their homes in Zimbabwe to South Africa in search of work and food.
Social workers from Save the Children and UNICEF told CNN that in June, 175 Zimbabwean children came over the border illegally and alone. In November, 1,016 kids made the same perilous journey.
The boys older than 16 hang around Musina, sleeping on the sidewalk by a sports stadium along with older homeless men. Their days are spent waiting in line, jostling alongside hundreds of Zimbabwean adults, trying to apply for political asylum at a makeshift center opened by South African authorities.
A South African official who processes asylum applications says it is common for youngsters to lie about their age so they can get the papers to stay in the country legally.
Many, though, cannot get the necessary papers because they do not carry documentation or have adults who can vouch for who they are and where they come from.
So, they wander the streets, begging for money.
The younger ones like Brian are picked up by police and housed in a safe place until authorities and aid agencies can figure out what to do with them.
While they wait for a future that never seems to arrive, boys like Brian and Temashi -- a legacy of Mugabe's regime -- struggle to survive in the world they now find themselves in.