On Monday, the 6th of December 2021, a transit group of 15 men, all from Afghanistan except for one Kurdish man stemming from Turkey, was apprehended by the authorities while being transported in a vehicle in what is known as a ‘taxi game’.
Starting from the Bosnian town of Bihać, it had taken the 19-year-old respondent’s group what he recalled as about twelve hours to reach the site in Croatia close to the Bosnian border where they were supposed to be picked up. During the journey, they were walking through what he described as harsh conditions of snow reaching up to their ankles. Later they had to waiting for one to two hours for a white van in the forest as it continued to snow.
The respondent told the van they entered started driving from the Croatian 217 road towards Slovenia, presumably it must have reached the Croatian highway 1 or 42 already when the van after one hour of driving started being followed by a rather small or normal-sized white police car, which reportedly carried two green lights on its top and turned on its siren to stop the vehicle by the side of the road.
The respondent related they were apprehended in the evening past sunset. Reportedly, the officers first stopped the vehicle, then showed their police badges to the driver who only stayed quiet, and phoned for more officers to search the car. From inside the van the respondent related the transit group was not able to see what was happening as they were trapped in the back of the vehicle, which had only two visible windows on the roof for ventilation, but not on the sides. When being asked to recall the exact time and location of apprehension, the respondent apologized, relating that the group was in a great state of exhaustion and only very few of them were carrying mobile phones, also unfamiliar with Croatian territory.
“You must understand, this was a very tired time for us, because we were walking for twelve hours […] We were very tired, we didn’t have a mobile or watch.”
The respondent remembered one of the officers distinctly as an older bald man with glasses, carrying a police badge on a chain around his neck. After what he recalled as about another 15 minutes a second police car arrived. The 19-year-old man related they were barely able to see the officers in the dark by the side of the road, and thus were unable to count them but said they were wearing dark blue, almost black uniforms. One officer also had his face covered by a balaclava. After what the respondent remembered as an additional 15 to 20 minutes after the second car, another police van arrived. The respondent related some words they exchanged with the first officers that apprehended them, some with the ones arriving with the van, but that in general they were told to stay silent and told, “Don’t speak!”
Ensuingly, one male and a female officer came to search the transit group, taking everything out from their bags on the road, also searching their clothes, which were returned after, but using one of the group’s plastic bags to confiscate their phones, power banks, cables, and lighters. According to the respondent’s description, they were searched and directly forced into the arrived police van one after the other.
“They said to us ‘Who has a plastic bag?’ One person said ‘Yes, I have one’ And he gave it to the Croatian police and they threw everything in there. Mobiles, power banks, the charger cables, the lighters… After the deporting time, they gave everything back. […] Clothes they gave back after searching us.”
The officers also asked the men where they were from, upon which the respondent related they answered they were all from Afghanistan. The man from the Kurdish part of Turkey reportedly went along with this and did not say otherwise.
The transit group was then brought in what the respondent remembered as a 15 to 20-minute drive to a nearby police station in the back of the blind van, which had no windows but a fan on the ceiling inside. The driver of the transit vehicle was also taken into custody with them and transported in the same van. Considering the recalled times both of waiting for the additional arriving police forces and the distance to the station, it might be presumable that these additional forces were all being called and coming from the same police station.
The officers at the station, where the group was held for two days, to the respondent’s memory seemed to wear the same uniforms as the forces that had apprehended them, wearing clothes in the same dark color, having something written on the chest as well as the upper arm of the uniform. The respondent related not having been able to see much of the station as they had to stay in their room of detention for the whole two days, only walking through the station when being escorted to the toilet by two officers each time. Then he mentioned that he also saw many other officers, working on their computers. The driver of the vehicle apparently was held in a different room and hence not seen anymore.
When first arriving the 19-year-old man told the whole group had to sign three papers each, with no translator present, but those three papers being the same just in English, Pashto, and what the respondent suspected must have been a Croatian translation. On it, they reportedly had to give their personal information, such as their full name, country, province, age, etc. Then they were questioned again and it was revealed that in contrast to the other members of the transit group the single Kurdish man was from Turkey, not Afghanistan as he had declared. According to the respondent they also asked the officers for asylum but were refused.
“We said to the Croatian police ‘We want stay’. The condition is very cold, we want to go to Italy. You must understand the condition of Afghanistan is not good. But he didn’t accept it, and they deported us.”
The respondent stressed that they were being given sufficient water and access to the toilet by an escort, but barely anything to eat in the whole two days of their detention.
“We said ‘We are very hungry, some people didn’t have food. […] so if you don’t deport us please give us the bread.’ [The officer] opened the door and said ‘Silence!’ […] Only one morning they gave us a Burek, after that [in the whole two days of custody] they didn’t give us anything to eat. Only the police was coming to ask who wants to go to the toilet, one person was joking: “You don’t eat anything, you don’t go to the toilet!”
When describing the detention setting they were being held in, the respondent related that was a white room with a wooden table, a camera watching them, and two windows looking out upon a big park, just behind the station. Reportedly, no beds were provided, and every one of the group slept in their own sleeping bags upon the bare floor.
The respondent told the group then left the station again in the evening but two days later around what he remembered as 8 to 9 pm, mentioning that before the officers had made “many preparations”. Just before taking them out of the room, the respondent reported one officer went into their detention room with what the 19-year-old man described as a CD in his hand and told them to be silent for one hour. The respondent related he had no knowledge of the reason for the officers’ behavior. The transit group, just the 14 of them from Afghanistan – the Kurdish man reportedly having been taken in a separate van – was then taken outside of the room to the parking of the station and driven by two male officers in what in the dark looked to the respondent like dark blue to almost black uniforms in a police van for what he estimated as about three hours from the station to the Bosnia-Croatian border. While being driven the respondent said that many of the group, including himself, fell asleep as they had barely slept for two days due to the exhausting conditions of apprehension, and that he thus was not sure about the exact duration of the drive.
At the pushback site, which the respondent described as a bumpy forest road on the green border with two big cement blocks about one meter high, close to the Bosnian town of Velika Kladuša, also several other, from what the respondent saw an only male, officers were present who presumably had come in additional cars, which, however, were not visible, as solely the police van that had brought them had its lights turned on. The respondent suspected it was the border as close by he mentioned he saw a pole bearing the Bosnian national flag. The 19-year-old said he could not identify the number of officers, who in the dark of the night to him seemed to wear again the same dark blue to black uniforms, he related the men were already outside waiting for them when the van was opened. Reportedly, the other officers not directly involved in pushing them back over the border were waiting by the side of the van holding, black batons in their hands.
Ensuingly, the authorities let the transit out of the van, closed the doors again, and returned the groups before confiscating belongings, including their mobile phones. The respondent reported being surprised about the conduct of the Croatian forces during the pushback:
“Only this deport they gave back everything. Other times they deported me they took the money, the mobiles, everything they took from us. Sleeping bags, bags they used to put on fire, the police of Croatia.”
The group was then told to walk quickly through in between the two blocks to the Bosnian side. Reportedly, the officers also insulted them, saying “U pitčku materinu!”, literally meaning “In your mother’s pussy!”, and generally used a swear word in Serbo-Croatian to tell someone to ‘go back where you came from’.
“It was a place in the jungle [meaning forest], and one road with two big blocks, like cement blocks. At the deport place there was one block here, and one block here. Go between the blocks, ‘Go quickly!’, close to Kladuša. […] I think it was the border between Bosnia and Croatia, because near to the blocks there was one pole, a small pole and it had the flag of Bosnia.”
The respondent related that they could not be sure, but suspected that the Kurdish member of the transit group had also pushed back – unknown to why he had been taken in a different van, so he said they decided to wait for him for one up to two hours and upon meeting up again then walked back to the city of Velika Kladuša together.
“We waited for the Turkish guy because we’re humans, you know, it was the jungle [meaning forest] and in the nighttime. He was our friend and we travelled together several times, and so we waited for him in a Bosnian house close to the border, then we went together to the bus station.”
Afterwards, it took the group about 30 minutes to reach again a bigger, paved road leading through local villages back towards Velika Kladuša next to which a wide river was running. After two to three hours of walking in total from the border site, the group of 15 reached the city’s bus station, to from there return to their make-shift camp on the outskirts of Bihać.
“We go on the jungle road [meaning a dirt road], after that we go on a village road. There was a village with some houses near to the road. Go, go, go… and there is the water, a lot of water. The first road was smaller, without cement. In the second we walked and walked and walked and we got to Kladuša center.”