On December 14, 2021 between 10 and 11 am, the respondent and 33 other people-on-the-move were pushed back from Uzunbodzhak, Bulgaria to Avcilar, Turkey.
The respondent is a 47-year-old male from Syria who was travelling in a group of 34 people consisting of Syrians and Iraqis. Among them there were 3 women and 7 minors. Four of them were between 5 – 9 years old while three of them were between 10 – 7 years old.
On December 13th, 2021 at around 10 pm the group started their journey from Edirne to the Bulgarian border by a 40 minute drive on mostly unpaved roads in a van and by a 30 minute walk afterwards. Close to a river at the Turkish-Bulgarian border-fence the group crossed the river and crossed into Bulgarian territory. It was around 2 am of December 14th, 2021.
The respondent explained that the area had many unpaved roads used by Bulgarian border police which patrol the border. He noticed cameras which he referred to as “night vision cameras” mounted every 3 meters on top of the 5 meters high, barbed border fence.
Some group members waited 20 – 30 minutes for everyone to catch up. Then, the entire group started to walk quickly through the mountains in order to not be noticed. The group walked about 8 km continuously in 4 hours. “No one can walk on paved roads in Bulgaria. We were even afraid every time we found unpaved roads on our way”, the respondent explained, which is why they walked between trees in the mountain forest on slippery and wet ground. Their envisaged destination was a meeting point close to a village which the respondents friend identified as Lesovo, Bulgaria.
After the 10 km walk they were to be picked up and driven to Sofia. The respondent didn’t know further details about how the transport of 34 people at once was to be organized.
The group never got to the envisaged meeting point because they were intercepted on their way when they had to cross an empty big open area without trees. Suddenly the respondent reported lights of two cars flashed.
The cars approached the group at around 6 am on December 14th, 2021 and were reportedly parked in front and behind the group. The seven officers who left the cars reportedly started screaming at the group members, threatened them with firearms, and continuously kicked and beat all members of the group for about 15 minutes. Children were crying and although the respondent couldn’t see whether women were physically assaulted as well, he witnessed how minors were kicked in front of his eyes. The beating and kicking was random, on all parts of the body.
Three of the seven officers were wearing green uniforms with “police” written on their backs, identified as Bulgarian border police uniforms and carrying the “small police guns.” The respondent described the other officers as “soldiers”, based on green camouflage uniforms with the Bulgarian flag.
The vehicles used were described as a black land rover with ”police” written in the front, as used by the Bulgarian border police, and a green old military jeep, which the respondent identified as like the vehicles shown below.
After the initial physical assault by officers identified as Bulgarian border police, one officer took pictures of the group all together with his phone and started to ask questions in Turkish and English. The officers reportedly spoke Bulgarian among themselves. According to the respondent, one of the minors was forced to gather their belongings and continuously kicked in order to do this faster. After that, he was reportedly beaten with a baton and forced to sit down again.
The group had all their personal belongings taken away and had to put their phones and money in a separate black bag which afterwards was put in the black land rover. The respondent had about 150 Euros and estimates that the officers took about 1700 Euros from the whole group. After that, the group was reportedly searched and forced to undress except for their underwear one by one. Although the women were not forced to undress they were reportedly searched by male officers and touched in their sensitive areas. The minors also had to remove their clothes. This took an estimated 40 minutes.
“They were searching every part of our clothes like they were digging for gold and we were freezing from the cold weather”.
The respondent explained that the officers took the money, phones, power banks and shoes, and food and water that they were carrying. Only pants and shirts were returned, the rest was stolen. This took place in the early morning around 7 am.
Following that, the respondent described that a big, olive green military truck arrived and the transit group members were hit with batons by the officers in order to get in the trunk of the car quickly. All 34 people were loaded into the 2 x 3 metre trunk of the truck and the group was reportedly having a hard time breathing inside the narrow and dark space. Inside the truck were two officers wearing green uniforms. They drove on unpaved roads for approximately 3 hours in a reckless way.
“They kept moving around and we really started breathing hard. We were locked inside like we are chicken. […] We felt at some moment that the truck was about to flip and fall. We were so scared!”.
At the point of arrival at the border fence, one of the officers opened a door in the fence, as pictured below, and one by one the group members were pushed back to Turkish territory at between 10 and 11 am on December 14, 2021. The area around the location of the pushback was dominated by forests and mountains.
Border fence with door (Source: https://orient-news.net/news_images/16_3/1458970530)
Except for the minors, all group members were barefoot. “We walked in the middle of the forest and we really didn’t know where we were. We were hungry and thirsty.” They walked for almost 4 hours until they arrived at the small village Avcilar where they asked for water and food and were provided help by a local.
The desire to ask for asylum was expressed when the officers first encountered the group. No water, food, or medical assistance was provided.
“They were about to break our heads with the baton. Do you think they would care about our health?”
No fingerprints and only collective photos were taken before the group was searched.