This testimony describes the pushback of a transit group that got separated upon apprehension, then reunited in a detention site and then again separated right after the pushback when Turkish authorities forced part of the group back to Greece.
The respondent , a 35-year-old man from Syria, was part of the group forced back to Greece while the rest of his original transit group returned to Istanbul.
In this testimony, he described the first pushback from Greece to Turkey, the events that forced him back into Greek territory by Turkish authorities, and also the second pushback he experienced from Greece to Turkey.
The testimony titled, “We want the international community to know what they are doing to us and we hope that we can go somewhere else. Anywhere where it’s peaceful. If it’s Somalia, I don’t care. We just want peace.” describes the events from the perspective of the other members of his original transit group, detailing the same first pushback described here.
On April 25th, a group of five people from Syria and two persons from Iraq, all male, between the ages of 12 and 39, crossed the border from Turkey to Greece near Soufli.
Reportedly, all but one of the Syrian nationals are related; among them were two minors (12 and 14) traveling without their parents, but with extended family members. The 14-year-old has severe scoliosis and has 14 screws implanted in his body. According to the respondent, the minor’s uncle is a recognised refugee in Athens.
On May 6th, after the transit group had been walking for 11 days, the uncle mentioned above came from Athens together with a lawyer to pick up his nephew, as he was concerned for the minor’s health and in fear of him being pushed back, recalled the respondent.
The pickup took place outside Komotini, near the village Gratini.
According to the respondent, the lawyer had previously alerted the recently established UNHCR hotline, many NGOs, and several journalists in the hopes of preventing a pushback.
Shortly before the pickup, the group, who had run out of food, reportedly went to a supermarket in Arriana where they met a Greek local who treated them politely and, to the group’s surprise, did not call the police.
After the minor had been picked up by his uncle and taken to Athens, the rest of the group, now six people, continued walking towards Thessaloniki. Three days later, on May 9th, at around 1.30 a.m., they were apprehended while walking outside Amaxades, recalled the respondent.
Once the lawyers and journalists involved realised they had lost contact with the transit group, they contacted the police precincts of Orestiada, Kavala, Xanthi, and Komotini, but no information was provided to them.
The respondent then explained that the group had been apprehended by several officers in uniforms resembling the uniform of the Greek police. It was dark and his vision was impeded by a flashlight, so the respondent cannot recall the exact number of officers present at the apprehension point.
According to the respondent, when the group was apprehended, the respondent’s cousin and nephew (the second minor of this transit group), as well as one of the Iraqi nationals, ran away, and discarded their phones out of fear of being tracked by the officers.
The respondent and the other two group members were caught by the officers. The respondent recalled a vehicle present at the scene which he described as “a white van without seats inside that had police written on it”. He further identified a curtain behind the driver and a camera inside the back.
The respondent and the other group members were beaten during apprehension and forced to undress while being frisked. Afterward, they were allowed to put their clothes back on and then ordered to get into the white van. The drive did not take long, approximately 15 minutes, estimated the respondent. Due to the location of apprehension and the short drive, the group assumed they were taken to Xanthi but there are no other indications backing this assumption as the vehicle had no windows so the respondent could not see where they were being taken.
When the car stopped, the group of now four men was ordered to exit and hurry inside a building which the respondent refers to as a “police station”. The respondent explains: “we were being beaten to move quickly from the car to the police station while looking down on the ground with our hands like this” while placing his hands behind his neck. He explains that it was therefore very difficult to recognise anything about the detention site and know where they were detained. Upon further questioning, the respondent recalled the detention site was likely in a rural area as he could hear various sounds of wildlife. He was further certain that there were several cars resembling police cars present at this detention site.
According to the respondent, the first detention site was a two-storey building that had a wall topped with barbed wire, an entrance with four steps leading up to a big black metal door which upon entering, led to another glass and aluminum door leading to a hall with seats along the wall. The colour of the wall was a very light yellow, and the floor was covered in light brown tiles. There was one cell they were taken into and many other doors, more than ten, but the respondent does not know where they lead to. This station was bigger than the other detention sites they would be taken to at a later stage during the pushback.
“But we didn’t see anything other than being beaten,” adds the respondent. The group was detained at this detention site from around 2 a.m. until about 10 or 11 a.m. There were no translators available, the group was not permitted to ask for asylum, and they were denied food and water as well as access to a toilet, recounted the respondent.
There were six officers present at this detention site, as well as the two officers who brought them there, amounting to eight in total. The two officers who brought the group there were reportedly wearing black clothes and balaclavas, and had Greek writing on their uniforms but the respondent couldn’t tell details as he was told to look on the ground. One of the six officers present at the detention site was a woman wearing a sage green uniform and no balaclava. The other five officers were male: two with plain black uniforms, and three in camouflage uniforms; all wearing balaclavas.
Reportedly, inside this first detention site, there were many other people, all from Afghanistan or Syria. Soon after the respondent and the others had arrived, the other three members of the original transit group of the respondent who had previously escaped apprehension were taken into this detention site as well. In total, the group now comprised approximately 35-40 people, and except for the two Iraqis, were all Afghan or Syrian, and male.
After spending about eight hours in the cell, the transit group was loaded into a blue bus described identified by the respondent as the one in image 1.
According to the respondent, one officer in a blue uniform resembling the Greek police uniform was driving the bus while it was escorted by two more cars in the front and back of the bus which the respondent described as police cars. He noted that when the traffic was high, the cars turned on the sirens to pass through.
The drive from the first to the second detention site lasted approximately one hour according to the respondent. They arrived at a second detention site at around 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 9.
Upon arriving at at the second detention site, the entire transit group had to undress again, while also being beaten with batons again. They were not given their clothes back but were given boxers instead. Here, they stayed for two to three hours and were allowed to use the toilet quickly and were given water. Nobody talked to them or asked them anything and they were not able to ask for asylum.
Approximately 20 officers were present, four of them in black uniforms with balaclavas and no writing. The others were mostly wearing camouflage uniforms and some in sage green uniform, some with camouflage trousers and normal jackets, most wearing balaclavas.
The respondent described the second detention site as a old or worn down one-storey building that looked like it was “like it’s made from stone” from outside, and just like the first detention site it was surrounded by a wall and barbed wire. The respondent recalled the entrance door had two steps leading to a small door looking “like a normal entrance door” made of grey metal which led into a corridor at the end of which there was a room on the right side which was the holding cell. There were also many other doors but the respondent does not know where they led to. He said the whole building was significantly smaller than the previous detention site, and added that the walls inside the corridor and the holding cell were a light yellow; the floor as covered grey tiles.
At around 2 or 3 p.m., the group was ordered to exit the building and get on the same type of blue bus as before, but without an escort this time.
After driving for around three hours, the group arrived at a third detention site at around five or six in the evening. The respondent explained that again they were ordered to look on the ground which is why he cannot explain much of the building’s exterior. He recalled however that the ground around the building was made of asphalt. To enter the building, there were two or three steps through a wide black metal door with a smaller one inside which was the one they entered through. After entering through this door, the group found themselves in a corridor with old tiles but the respondent cannot recall the colour. The walls were “very worn down and scratched”, illustrated the respondent.
According to him, after spending around two or three hours at this third detention site, some officers wearing plain sage green uniforms and balaclavas came and ordered the group of 35-40 to leave the detention site and get on a military transfer vehicle with metal (not tarp) casing. The vehicle had no windows other than in the roof, and there were no seats inside. They reportedly drove for a short time, around 15 minutes until they arrived at the river. Several other officers wearing camouflage uniforms and balaclavas were waiting there. The respondent recalled that the group, still wearing nothing but boxers, was ordered to undress again and the officers beat them while they undressed, and after the group was frisked again and left completely naked.
As the respondent described, in two trips, the group was ferried across the river to the Turkish site – still completely naked. The pushback occurred at around 8:30 or 9 PM on the evening of Sunday, May 9th. Once they arrived on the Turkish side, they walked to a village and went into a Mosque asking for help. “It was more humiliating than I will ever be able to explain,” recalled the respondent. “We were walking naked. I was holding my hands like this” recounted the respondent while holding his hands in front of his crotch.
Some people in the Mosque gave them clothes and food and called the Jandarma (Turkish police). Based on the respondent’s account, it is suspected that this Mosque might have been the one in the village of Saricaali.
Reportedly, when the Turkish officers arrived, they took the group back to the river and ordered them to cross back to Greece. The uniformed men had two boats with them. They ordered the respondent and eight of the other Syrians they had encountered in the first detention site during the previous pushback (none from his original transit group) to get on one of the boats. “We said, ‘we have no food, no [proper] clothes, please don’t send us back!’ But they didn’t listen. They sent us back anyways” recalled the respondent. “They don’t ask us anything, they just used us as pawns” he added.
The boat was not equipped with an engine, only paddles. The nine Syrian men were forced to get on the boat with the officers kicking them, and they were ordered to paddle back to the Greek shore. The boat also had a rope attached to it that the Turkish officers had tied to a tree, in order to pull it back to the Turkish shore once the first group disembarked on the Greek side.
When the respondent arrived on the Greek shore, he decided to destroy the boat in order to save his relatives and the other members of their group from being forced back to Greece as well. He explained how he took a branch and punched a hole in the inflatable boat.
The group then waited on a nearby “road for military vehicles” right next to the river to be found by Greek officers. The respondent estimates that they had arrived back on the Greek side at around 11 or 12 p.m. After waiting for about three hours, when it was still dark, a camouflage unimog truck arrived (identified by the respondent as resembling the vehicle in Image 2), carrying five officers in camouflage military uniforms and balaclavas, each of them carried fire arms identified as AK 47 or similar.
One of the group members spoke English and addressed the officers. He reportedly asked them for help, explained that they hadn’t eaten for three days and were exhausted. The soldiers made a call, and around 10 minutes later, a vehicle arrived with one driver. It was described by the respondent as a closed, unmarked white van without windows, and the driver wore civilian clothes. While the group had been waiting, the soldiers only asked them where exactly they had crossed but other than that there were no interactions.
When the van arrived, the group was ordered to get in, recalled the respondent, and they were driven for around half an hour and arrived at a detention site at around three or four in the morning. It was the same detention site as the last (third) one in which the respondent and the rest of his original transit group and the other people had been held the previous day. This time, there were three officers in blue uniforms with balaclavas waiting for them. The officers ordered the group to exit the car with their hands on their necks and their heads looking down at the ground. That’s why the respondent couldn’t see many details, it was also still dark. The respondent was only able to see some vehicles nearby but cannot describe any details.
In the corridor inside the building, reportedly all of the group members were ordered to undress completely. They were searched and then given some of their clothes back, but only light clothes and not their shoes. Then they were ordered to get into a cell which was the only room in this building. Between 100-120 people were already gathered inside this room at the time. This group was composed of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iran, including two women and one 6-year-old child from Afrin, Syria. There was a toilet in this cell that had a window. Through this window, the respondent could see a wall around the building with barbed wire on the top. He could see some small houses and civilian vehicles parked outside that wall, there were no fields or forests.
They were reportedly kept there until the next day’s sunset, so approximately 17 or 18 hours. The respondent recalled how during the period of their detention, at times officers would talk to them through the door, telling them to be quiet and not make any noise. Three times, the door was opened and more people were brought in: once 10, once one, and once three people. The total number of people detained in the room now reached something between 125 and 145 people, identified the respondent.
At sunset on May 10th, some officers in blue uniforms opened the door and told the whole group to get out of the holding cell. According to the respondent, around 20 officers, some in EKAM uniform, some in blue uniforms and some in military uniforms, all wearing masks and carrying sticks – some batons and some tree branches – were present at this point. These 20 officers had formed two lines leading to five vehicles parked outside the building. There was one big blue van and four bigger vehicles similar to KrAS-255B but with metal casing instead of tarps and windows on the top. The group of 125-145 people was then ordered to walk to the cars, having to pass through the two lines of officers. The officers were randomly hitting all of the group members as they walked by, recalled the respondent. He was ordered to get into the smaller blue van which did not have any windows and had a door at the back as well as the side and nothing inside, also no seats. The drive lasted for around 30-35 minutes. At this point, it was sunset time. The sun had already set but it was not dark yet, thus around nine in the evening.
The respondent recalled how two of the officers from the detention site had come with the respondent’s car, and the other four vehicles with the rest of the group also arrived at the same spot.
The respondent estimated that there were 15-20 officers present there in total, some wearing blue uniforms, some camouflage uniforms, all wearing balaclavas and most of them carrying batons or metal pipes, as well as firearms.
The respondent describes the landscape as a forest. The group was ordered to walk around 200 meters away from the cars and arrived at train tracks. All of the officers accompanied them. The group members were ordered to kneel on the train tracks and then, one by one, ordered to stand up to be searched. This procedure was repeated three times with each group member and lasted for approximately one hour, recalled the respondent. By this time, it was dark.
Then, still standing on the train tracks, the group was divided into smaller groups of around 20 people each. About 10 to 15 meters away from the train tracks was the river and after the third round of frisking and being divided into smaller groups, they were ordered to walk to the river in their respective sub-group, described the respondent.
At the river, one other vehicle was present, the same type of white van as was used before, with some more officers in different uniforms, and three boats. The boats were all the same type, described as bright blue and silver/grey inflatable dinghies. The officers ordered some of the group members to carry the boats into the water.
The boat the respondent was put on was ferried by two Syrian men who were working for the officers. When asked for details about this, the respondent explained:
“They [the officers] always ask us if anyone speaks English. And those who do, they can work for the police. You work for three months, and you will get the Khartia. But they only want English speakers. Someone who has the Khartia can travel inside Greece and can go to Albania. That’s what these people who were pushing us back told us.”
The respondent says the officers appear to prefer Kurdish Syrian people if they have the choice, “because they know that Kurds don’t like the Turks either”.
In groups of 20, the group members were reportedly ferried across the river with paddles on the three boats. They were taken all the way to the Turkish side. Once they arrived at the Turkish shore, they were told to “go straight”, not left or right. The respondent believed this was an attempt at the hand of the Greek officers, or the third-country nationals working with the Greeks, to avoid interactions with the Turkish border guards and prevent another group from being sent back to Greece, he explained.
The respondent is not sure of the exact location of the actual pushback site. He described that there were no villages but a forest and train tracks on the Greek side; no islands nearby in the river; and on the Turkish side, there was no forest but fields and farms.
After the pushback, the group walked along a dirt road and reached a swamp which they crossed. After that, they followed another dirt road and then arrived at a highway. Until they reached the highway, they had walked for around one hour. At the highway, they split up. Some Afghan people went first while the others waited, hiding on a farm. After 15 min of hiding there, the respondent and the others went to the highway, stopped a taxi, and went to Istanbul where the respondent was reunited with his relatives and the other members of his original transit group.