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I was scared because I didn’t know what made them bring me here or what they were going to do next

Date & Time 2021-01-04
Location Soufli/Meric
Reported by josoor
Coordinates 41.1943451, 26.2992566
Pushback from Greece
Pushback to Turkey
Taken to a police station yes
Minors involved yes
WLTI* involved yes
Men involved yes
Age 3 - 55
Group size 80
Countries of origin Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey
Treatment at police station or other place of detention detention, no translator present, denial of access to toilets, denial of food/water, personal belongings taken
Overall number of policemen and policewomen involved 20
Violence used beating (with batons/hands/other), threatening with guns, gunshots, forcing to undress, theft of personal belongings, reckless driving
Police involved 2 officers wearing balaclavas but one dressed in black and the other in a green camouflage uniform, with one blue and white police car and one green military car; 3 officers in civilian clothing with an unmarked Fiat; 2 officers wearing green uniforms with balaclavas; 3 officers dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and 2 wearing green uniforms with “police” written on them in English; 3 officers wearing all black with balaclavas in a big black military truck; 5 officers - two wearing green uniforms & three dressed in black

This report contains three first-hand accounts of the same pushback, which involved a group of 80 people being pushed back from Greece to Turkey on the 1st of April. 

Testimony 1:

The respondent, a 42-year-old Tunisian man, crossed into Greece from Turkey via the Evros/Meriç River. He and two other Tunisian men, ages 39 and 27, paid a smuggler to take them across the river in a boat. After landing on the Greek side, the smuggler returned to Turkey and the respondent walked with the other two men for three days, until they arrived at a place near Mikro Dereio. There, they were apprehended by two officers, both wearing balaclavas but one dressed in black and the other in a green camouflage uniform.

Although the three men were originally all apprehended together, the two others attempted to run away, causing the officers to chase after them and allowing the respondent to hide. He watched as one of the officers fired his gun into the air “to scare them and make them stop running” while the other carried a tree branch in his hands. The two men were caught, and the respondent watched as the officers hit them and loaded them into a blue and white car with “police” written on it. A green military-style car was also at the scene of apprehension, but the respondent wasn’t sure if any other officers were inside it.

When the officers had left with the two men, the respondent moved away from where he was hiding and found a place to sleep. At sunrise, he began to walk, without the aid of any maps because his phone was out of battery. He walked around 12 kilometers, meeting two Moroccans along the way that he later parted ways with, until he arrived at a village called Rosa. After changing his clothes in a wooded area, he entered the village to try to find at around 4 pm somewhere to charge his phone, use wifi, and get food. He recalled that the village had a mosque, but that it’s “not a proper mosque, it’s a cafe with a speaker above it to announce the prayer.” That café was closed, but he found another one that was open for takeaway, where there were three women and one man. He ordered a coffee from the woman who worked there and asked her for the wifi password, but when she came back with a paper that had the password on it she said “problem”. The respondent said:

“I asked her what was the problem and she told me ‘police’. I tried to escape, but an officer wearing civilian clothing was standing by the door and asked me to sit down on the chair. He asked me for my passport and I told him I don’t have one.”

The officer originally spoke in Greek and then switched to English, which the respondent was able to understand a little. 

The respondent was kept in the café until a Fiat arrived with two additional officers, both wearing “sportswear” with “no sign that showed they were officers”. They took the respondent’s phone and checked him while they were still in front of the cafe, in plain sight of people walking by. Then, they put him in the car and drove about 25 kilometers, or 30-35 minutes, first along a paved road and then along an unpaved road, with the last seven or so kilometers through a forest. The respondent said:

“I thought he was going to take me to a camp but it turned out to be a forest and I was scared because I didn’t know what made them bring me here or what they were going to do next.”

When they stopped, the door was opened by two officers wearing green uniforms with balaclavas and holding guns. There was also a group of Syrians, including four women around 27 or 28 years old, three men between 35 and 37, two men around 22 years old, and four little boys and a girl between four and six years old. They loaded them all into the back of the car, where there weren’t any seats and they had to kneel instead. The drive took about 45 minutes, during which time, the respondent said,

“[The driving] was too fast and reckless and he didn’t care that they had people in the car box. We were like sheep until they got us to the detention site.”

They arrived at the detention site at around 7:30 pm, where the respondent saw some houses nearby and described the place as “closed—surrounded by a high wall”. The group was brought inside to a room with tables in it where they were met by five officers. Three were dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and carrying batons while two were wearing green uniforms with “police” written on them in English. The officer checking them wore gloves and the respondent said that the officers with batons “kept hitting us on our backs and asking us to sit.” The respondent stated that the officers “took all of our clothes off” and took “the rest of what I have: my jacket, my shoes, my wallet, my watch.” He recalled that:

“later, when they got the women inside, they told them that they would not take off their shoes. [The officers] loaded their husbands into the car and hit each one on his back with the baton before he got in the car. Later, when they brought the women to the car [the women] told us that while they were checking them they touched their sensitive places in their bodies and faced a lot of harassment.”

The women were checked by male officers and had their shoes taken away from them. 

While they were detained, the respondent said they asked for asylum, but the officers hit them and said, “no camp go to Turkey.” They weren’t given any food, water, medical help, or access to a toilet.

After being at the detention site for about two hours, the group was loaded into a big, black military truck. Despite only having seats for 20 people, around 80 people were put into the truck, including the two Tunisian men the respondent had crossed into Greece with. The other people came from Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey and were between the ages of 3 and 55. The respondent recalled:

“There was an old guy—he was Turkish. He told them he wanted to ask for asylum but they beat him hard. He talked with them in English and German; he told them, ‘I can’t go back to Turkey because if I go back they will kill me.’”

The Turkish man said he didn’t want to go back to Turkey because “he was charged with a long prison sentence in Turkey.” He didn’t say why he was charged but even later, when they were taken out at the river, “he refused to get out; they kept beating him hard.”

There were three officers in the military truck wearing all black with balaclavas and nothing to signal that they were officers. They drove about an hour and a half in a fast and reckless manner until they arrived at the river, where a 4 by 4 car met them with a boat. The respondent described the pushback site in the following way: “There was light behind us, I guess a light of a village near to that place and…there was an island in the middle of [the river].” There were five other officers at the river, two wearing green uniforms and three dressed in all black. These officers didn’t talk much; the respondent said:

“you had to look at the ground, if you raised up your head they would beat you…they checked us again and took the rest of what people had managed to hide.”

The officers had an approximately two-meter-long boat that they put eight people in, in addition to the two officers driving it. With all the people, the respondent said, “it felt like it was sinking a little—they put us like they put bags.” The respondent was pushed back in one of the middle groups. They were not brought to the Turkish side but rather made to get out on an island in the middle of the river. The respondent recalled:

“…the people that had been pushed back in front of me were also stuck there. [They] kept doing that all morning—bringing more people there…we managed to cross while the families and women couldn’t cross.”

The respondent stayed on the island from around 9 pm until 3 am until he and others were able to get to the Turkish side; they were forced to swim due to the high level of the water. When they got there, the respondent described, they were found by the Turkish army. 

“They helped show us the way where the water level in the river was lower and…asked us to make a fire to warm up. The families were screaming to help them cross the river. Then, the Turkish army took us in the truck to get us near to the city; only the families stayed on the island…[the army] was looking for a boat to help them cross and they said they would find a solution to help them before the morning.”

The group was brought by the army to Meriç, about 20 minutes away, where he and another Tunisian man took a taxi to Edirne (about an hour and a half drive) and the others went to Istanbul.

Testimony 2:

On March 29th, a group of three Tunisian men, age 23, 30, and 37, and one 42-year-old Moroccan man crossed to Greece from around Karakasim. At around 7:00 or 8:00 pm, they crossed the border to Greece with an inflatable boat and on the Greek side, continued on foot. They walked much more than 100km, almost 150km in the following days. On the fourth day, the group was walking in a forest, surrounded by trees. The respondent suddenly noticed people hiding between the trees in a squatting position. When they realised the respondent had seen them, six men wearing black clothes and balaclavas jumped out of the woods. Two of them were carrying guns and fired warning shots in the air. The other four were carrying metal poles. 

One of the respondents’ companions got scared and ran away, but the masked men caught him and brought him back. “That’s why they beat us so hard. And they don’t even listen” explains the respondent.

The respondent and the other man had stopped moving right away. One of the masked men pointed his gun on the respondents’ leg. The respondent, who was very shocked in light of this first encounter with who he assumed to be Greek officers, asked for protection. “I asked for ‘asylum’. I told them ‘I am persecuted in my country,’ but nobody responded. I was just asking for peace”

Instead of responding to the respondents’ expression of his intention to ask for asylum, the masked men started beating them all and continued for 30min. “They were laughing while they were beating us” adds the respondent. 

Whenever he told the masked men about his wish to apply for asylum, they responded by telling him to “shut up”. 

When asked what language the officers were speaking with each other, the respondent said “a language I don’t understand, might be Greek.”

After around 30min of beatings, a vehicle arrived. It was a black van without license plates. It did not have any windows and a door at the back. Inside there were no seats but “it was very dirty, there were a lot of things from other people – food, bottles.”

The respondent could not see who was driving the car but noticed that two more men had arrived with the car, also wearing black clothes and balaclavas.

The car started moving and drove for around one hour. Then they arrived at a detention site. Two masked men opened the vehicle’s door and ordered the respondent and his companions to exit the car and were searched. “They took all of our things – bags, phone, money, everything.”

The respondent describes the place of detention as looking “like a police station”. It was a one level building with white walls but no official signs. Next to it, three Greek police cars (white with blue stripes and police written on them) as well as three white unmarked vans and two black unmarked cars, all without license plates, were parked. 

Inside, there was a “place like an office”. Two men and one woman were present there, wearing blue uniforms with “police” written on them in Greek and English on the back. There was also one officer wearing a sage green uniform, and the respondent remembers he was wearing glasses.

The respondent also remembers looking outside from inside the detention site and seeing one small house with two cars parked next to it. Other than that, there were no buildings close by.

Once the respondent and his companions were taken inside the detention site they were ordered to undress down to their boxers. There were three cells inside the building. Two of them were empty, the third one was full with around 100 people inside. The respondent and his group were taken into the same room. 

Among the group of 100 people, there were several people from different African countries, Bangladesh, Syria, Pakistan, and other nationalities. There were also two Syrian women with their husbands and several kids at the age of 2-12. “Actually, they are still on the island now where they pushed us back. Two families, with little babies, nothing there, no food, they cry all the time.”

Inside that room was no furniture or anything apart from one mattress. People were sitting on the floor. There was one toilet in the room, but without water. The respondent stayed in that room until the next day at night. 

One officer wearing a sage green uniform sometimes came into the room. The respondent always tried to talk to him.

“I asked for asylum. I asked why I was here, what was happening, and I asked for someone responsible to speak to. But there was no response. When I asked for asylum, the officer only shrugged his soldiers.”

The first night, none of the 100 people received water or food. The next morning, the officer in the green uniform with “police” written on the back set up a table with food and water. He was selling sandwiches for 3 Euros each, small bottles of water for 2 Euros and single cigarettes for 1 Euro each.

Some people who had been able to hide their money bought some things. “I think they took the cigarettes from the people and sold them back to them. I swear to god, it was like a mafia!” said the respondent.

The respondent kept trying to talk to the officer, but he never answered. “He pretended he doesn’t understand any English” said the respondent. He added:

“They arrest people for I don’t know what reason and then they sell them food. They let you be hungry and then they sell to you. I swear to god, it was like a mafia.”

Instead of responding to his questions, the officer in the green uniform asked the respondent to translate to the others. In exchange, the respondent got one cigarette for free. The officer also had a list of names of detainees and their orders to bring more.

Throughout the time they spent in this cell, more and more people were taken there. The room was only about 6x5m in size. It got so crowded that the respondent stayed next to the door, trying to get some oxygen through it. The female officer came and told him to stay away from the door. The respondent also asked her if he could talk to her, but she ignored him.

Eventually, two masked men came into the room. “Go back, go back” they ordered the detainees. They asked the respondent and some other people where they were from. A few guys responded that they were from Bangladesh, and the officers proceeded to beat them “so much”.

The officers then ordered the people in to leave the room, 10 at a time. The respondent and one of his companions were in the sixth or seventh group to exit the cell. The other companion had to stay behind. Outside of the room, the officers ordered the respondent and the nine others to take off all their clothes and beat them while they were undressing. “It was so cold” remembers the respondent. 

“Whenever I asked them anything, they beat me. Once they told me ‘just wait a little bit’.” 

Afterwards the group of 10 was taken into the next room which was a lot smaller and had one old mattress. They had to stay in that small room for about one hour. “Then they took us out, with beatings.” The officers hit them with their hands and kicked them with their feet. “It was a nightmare.”

There was a black car waiting outside the building, the same type as before and no license plate again. Around 30 or 40 people were ordered to get in. Some of them were able to sit, most had to stand. The car drove for around 15 or 20 min until they arrived at the Evros/Meriç River. 

The group of 30-40 was ordered to exit the car and sit down in two lines, “with beating”. The respondent was still wearing his mask (due to Covid) and had 20 Euros hidden in it. One of the officers started searching them again and also pulled down the respondent’s mask, found the money, and put it in his pocket. 

They were all constantly told to be silent. The respondent remembers four or five masked men at the site as well as one officer sitting in the car with night vision goggles (could not identify the uniform) and two more masked men on the boat. There were two small cars and one big vehicle which they had arrived in. 

“All silently, they beat you and take money from everyone” recalls the respondent. “I had a hat on my head, one of the people on the boat took it and threw it into the river”. 

In groups of 6-8 people, they were ordered to embark on the boat and were taken to an island in the Evros/Meriç River.

“We were sitting there all night, it was raining, so cold, we were without shoes, jackets. Someone had a lighter and we made a fire.  Cars were driving on the Greek side all the time. They checked on us with torches, and sometimes shouted at us.”

There were about 40 people on the island, all from the same car and two Syrian families with babies who had already been there when the others arrived.

“When the sun came up, I started swimming to Turkey. Five others as well. All Moroccans, men. The others are still on the island now.” The water level was so high that they could not feel the ground, and the current was strong. 

At night, the respondent also heard people on the Turkish side, but there was no-one there in the morning. 

The respondent doesn’t remember much on the Turkish side. “Three days without food, with beating, tired, I couldn’t concentrate.” 

He started walking with the other Tunisian and some Moroccans. They walked a lot, then they came across a village where they found a man and asked him for help. He called a taxi and arrived soon after. The taxi took them to the Edirne bus stop, the drive lasted around 40min to an hour. They were six people who got in the taxi.

The respondent is not certain of the exact location of the pushback. He remembers that on the Greek side, there was a highway right next to the river and that the island had lots of trees. On the Turkish side, the group first “went left, and then right, and there was this village.” Given all these descriptions, the pushback location is assumed to be close from Nasuhbey/Soufli.

When asked if the respondent wanted to add anything to his testimony, he said:

“I was shocked because I wanted to talk to someone responsible and they ignored me. This was the first time I tried to go to Greece. I had no idea this is what they would do. It was so bad, and that’s it. I just asked for protection, and he says ‘go to Turkey, go to Turkey.”

Testimony 3:

The respondent – a 37-year-old Tunisian man – crossed into Greece from Turkey with three other Tunisian men and one Moroccan man. They were all between 23 and 42 years old.

After crossing by boat, they walked for about 30km, mostly through forests for three days. The group would sleep during the day and walk at night. They were apprehended at approximately 2 or 3 am on 1st April, about 1km from Mikro Dereio. Three officers came with sticks, described as tree branches. Two officers were wearing plain green uniforms with ‘police’ written on the back, and another one was wearing completely black clothes. They all wore balaclavas.

Three from the group ran, and two Tunisians were caught, including the respondent. “They kept hitting me everywhere, too much” proclaimed the respondent. “I lost my mind and started yelling. I was screaming “please, please!”. He was beating the man with the respondent too. The beating lasted around 30 minutes before they stopped, the respondent had bad bruising on the left side of his body, specifically his back.

“They took everything I have”. The officers stole 25 euros and all of the respondents’ belongings. The other man had his phone and everything else he had taken from him. They stole their jackets too. 

After 30 minutes, the transit group was taken by the officers to a vehicle hidden in the forest. It was a white van with no number plates. There were no seats or anything inside the van. No windows, but lots of little holes in the side of the van. They were forced into the van, just the respondent and the other man. The officers drove the vehicle very recklessly for about 30 minutes along initially a paved road, and then an unpaved road, and then suddenly stopped. The officers left the car and the respondent and his companion were left inside the car for three hours. While they were parked, the respondent was about to see lots of electric cables through the holes.

After three hours, the officers returned and started the car again. This time, the officers only drove for about five minutes until they arrived at a detention site, again fast and reckless. When they arrived at the site at about 5:00 am. The transit group was forced to get out of the vehicle and then the officers hit them with sticks. At this “detention site,” there was a yard surrounded by an iron fence. It looked like a military site or station. Nearby to this detention site, there were some houses. The building itself was one floor, it looked like a “normal house”, as described by the respondent. There were five pickup trucks either green, blue or white. In addition to the three officers that had caught the respondent and his friend, there were two more officers wearing black clothes, and balaclavas, as well as another officer in a sage green uniform. These officers kept beating the respondent and his friends on their backs for about 10 minutes, with sticks described as “tree branches.” They did not hit one of the people from the transit group.

No one else was in the yard, but there were lots of backpacks there, probably around 70 which were near to the door of the house.

They took all our clothes, we were completely naked,” remarked the respondent. The respondent and his friends were taken inside. Inside the room, there were lots of shoelaces, and the room itself was about 6x7m big. There were three tables inside and the officers put all of their belongings on those tables. One of the officers in a green uniform frisked the respondent. Then, the respondent and his friends had most of their clothes returned, except their jackets and shoes. They were then taken into a small cell. Two officers in the same sage green uniforms were present. In the cell, there were already about 70-80 people. At about 6 am more and more people were brought in, and at the end, there were approximately 250 people. The cell was only 5x3m in size.

There was a second cell in this room, in which women and children were detained. The respondent did not know the number as he could not see into the cell. There were some Syrian families with their children, as well as one woman in the respondent’s cell. The youngest child was about two years old, and the eldest person was about 55 years old. Nationalities included: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq Kurds, Syrian, Moroccan and Tunisian. 

The respondent explained that they were inside the cell for about 12-15 hours. There was a toilet inside the room but there was no water. The room was “so dirty”. They were denied food and water from the officers, as well as medical help. However, after around 12 hours, one of the officers set out a table and laid out food and supplies on the table. The officers said to the people inside the cell that they were selling food and people could buy. The respondent explained that sandwiches were 3 €, water was 2 €, cigarettes were 1 € (per cigarette). The officer in the plain green uniform, without a balaclava, sold the stuff. The respondent explained that it seemed to be that the officer was selling back the belongings and food that was stolen from the groups.

At about 8:00 pm, the respondent and five others were taken out of the cell. Three officers wearing balaclavas – one wearing black clothes, and the other black jacket and green pants (different officers than before) – took them out of the room. They were taken straight to a light green old military truck. It was dark. Five by five they were taken outside into this truck. In total there were about 19 people in this truck – including some that had not been held at this detention site. Everyone in the truck was being polite to each other, some were sitting and most were standing. There were two women, three kids, who were one year or less. All Syrian. 

From the detention site, they drove for about 15 minutes. They were driving very fast and reckless along an unpaved road until they arrived at the river. This location was between Soufli and Nasuhbey.

When they arrived at the border, there was a white Nissan pickup truck that was parked next to the river, with some planks leading to where a boat was already in the water. The officers at the riverside were the same three officers as before.

The respondent explained that these officers searched the group again, and beat them hard with a branch – but they did not beat the women and children. The officers kept telling them “Euro! Euro!”, asking them for money. A Turkish guy in the group, who was around 55 years of age, was beaten really hard. He was screaming “I can’t go back to Turkey! I am Turkish, I will die over there!”. The officers beat him very hard, and then just threw him into the boat. They took people six by six in a boat (which had an engine) across the river – the respondent was in the second group.

The office driving the boat was wearing a black jacket and green trousers. The Turkish guy, four other Syrians and one other were taken across the river to an island.

The boat came back and picked up the respondent and five others. The first two groups were taken to shore, and the third group had to swim.

On the island, they could not find a way to cross. The Turkish army was on the Turkish side, and after one hour, they showed a path where to cross with a torch. The Greek officers left right after the pushback but returned later screaming at the Turkish officers. No one else was on the island, and no others arrived. 

The Syrian families stayed behind, and 10 people went to Turkey. The water was difficult to cross, as the water reached up to their necks. Half of the group that crossed swam, the others were able to walk on the river bed. When they got to the Turkish side, the soldiers – of which there were about six – ordered them to kneel.

The Turkish man stayed behind on the island too. A Syrian from the group told the soldiers that there was a Turkish guy on the island. Two soldiers immediately started looking for him, trying to find him. 

The soldiers ordered the group to find wood and make a fire, and the group did. There was a military truck with the soldiers, and the group was taken in this vehicle and driven to a nearby village where the officers called a taxi for them. This was about 120km from Edirne. Some of the group went to Edirne, and the others went to Istanbul. It was about 1 am when those who went to Edirne, arrived there.