The respondents are two Cubans – a married couple – a woman aged 50 years old and a man aged 51 years old – who had never stepped foot in Turkey before. The Cuban couple was reportedly amongst a group of 32 people who were involved in a pushback.
The Cuban couple declared that they had arrived in Thessaloniki on 22nd October 2021. When they arrived, they went to an office to apply for asylum in Thessaloniki at the Court House. According to their statement, they were told by Police Officer Mr. Dimitrios Savvidis at the Thessaloniki Court House to go to the Evros region, specifically Orestiada RIC, Fylakio (Φυλάκιο, Ορεστιάδα), to apply for asylum there. They declared that they waited until 28th January to travel to this center in Evros. This was because their lawyer told them to wait because there would be a new law in January 2022 that might influence their claim. The couple tried to ask for asylum before, but the lawyer held them back. They reported that they both bought tickets for the 11 am bus and traveled on a bus from Thessaloniki to Orestiada. When they arrived in the city, they took a taxi directly to the center. The taxi ride took about 20-22 minutes in total, arriving at the center at 7-7.20 pm in the evening on 28th January. The Cuban couple was not able to identify the name of the center during the testimony, but due to instructions given to them by Police Officer Mr. Dimitrios Savvidis at the Thessaloniki Court House, as well as the written down instructions, it was identified as Orestiada RIC, Fylakio (Φυλάκιο, Ορεστιάδα).
They described the center as having “three barbed-wire fences”, with a dark blue van, described as from the police, parked in front of it. “Astinomiko” was allegedly written on it.
According to their testimony, there was a big door to the center, manned outside by what the respondents identified as “police guards”. These two men were dressed in green trousers and green shirts. Both of them were wearing black balaclavas. When different pictures were shown to them, they identified these uniforms as the same as the ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ police.
The Cuban respondents also identified a car, described as a Nissan Qashqai with “police” written on it, near the door to the entrance of the center.
They declared that once they reached the center, they saw more people, whom the respondents identified as “police”. These people were wearing dark blue police uniforms. There were approximately five to six people, with two identified as women. When different pictures were shown to them, the respondents stated that they wore the same uniform as Greek border guards.
They explained that inside this center was where they were told to apply for asylum. They reportedly went forward and approached the desk and spoke to one of the dark blue-dressed men. They were able to communicate with this man through the use of a translator on one of their phones, so they handed the phone across to this man. The female respondent had a friend who had lived in Greece for 22 years because she was married to a Greek man and had a Greek passport – she spoke fluent Greek. The friend (referred to as “hermana de crianza”, which means someone who is basically a sister but is not blood-related) was on the phone helping them through the process. The respondents reported that the man in uniform told the friend that the paper which was given to him by the two Cubans was not valid and this is not the procedure to follow in accessing asylum. The man spoke for about 10 minutes with the friend, and reportedly said “the process is not like this” and after this, hung up the phone.
The respondents stated that then, the people in uniform took the phones of the Cuban couple immediately, right after the phone was hung up. They also allegedly took their backpacks, which had everything in them. The couple thought they were going to apply for asylum so had brought everything they would need to do so. This reportedly included: clothes, toiletries, medicine (the Cuban man suffers from migraines), tooth brace (the woman’s), blankets, charging cables, towels, and their wallets, amongst other things. Inside their wallets was 375€, which was taken later in the pushback, according to the respondents.
They added that the people in uniform also took their IDs, passports, photos of their grandson, and their religious trinkets. However, these were returned to them.
The Cuban couple was reportedly asked to sit on a white and red plastic fence outside the center. They sat there for 20-25 minutes, waiting. They were not handcuffed or restrained while being made to wait. They mentioned that they did not see anyone else at the center, as in no other people-on-the-move, just the people in uniform stated. The respondents explained that while they were waiting, the people in uniform told them via Google Translate whether the couple came in a group, of which they said they did not. The uniformed persons told the couple to speak in English, but they could not as they only spoke Spanish. The only thing the respondents declared that they understood was “malaka” (Greek swear word), which was said to them by the people in uniform.
They then stated that they waited there until a white van arrived. The white van was described as having nothing distinctive about it, no markings suggesting it was affiliated with the police. However, the male respondent remarked, “it was slightly in a bad state. Metal would make lots of metal sounds when it moved”.
The respondents declared that in this van, there were two new people in it – with one driving the van itself. These men were referred to as “officers” by the respondents. These “officers” both wore balaclavas – one dressed completely in black, the other was wearing a white shirt and jeans. The other people dressed in dark blue uniforms reportedly handed all of the stuff and belongings that were taken from the Cubans about 25 minutes prior to the arrival of the van. The respondent stated that one of the “officers” – the one dressed in black – picked out the male respondent’s shaving machine, which he had in his backpack, and also took the coins that were in the pocket of the male respondent too.
The two respondents declared that they were shouted at by the two new “officers”, saying “Go! Go!” to tell them to get into the back of the van. The respondents were not hurt, nor did they put up any resistance because they thought they were being taken to go and apply and get asylum.
The interviewees reported that from there, they were transported to a building they referred to as a “police facility”. They were driven for 20 to 30 minutes in a white van. The husband referred to it as “very violent driving. Super fast”. They hypothesized it may be a dirt road. They said they were jumping all the time in the back of the van. There was reportedly no seat or anything to sit on in the back of the van. They were sitting at the back part of the van, in the trunk area. It was just metal inside.
They explained that after this journey they arrived at a place, described as a detention site that the couple referred to as a “police facility”. They waited in the van and as soon as the engine stopped the back door opened. According to the respondent’s testimony, there stood about eight people. They were described as “very young” and there was reportedly one woman and seven men. Two of them were described as wearing blue uniforms – one was the woman and the other was who the respondents referred to as the “boss”. The other six were wearing green trousers and green pullovers. These people reportedly spoke English and Greek. None were wearing balaclavas, and all of them had their faces showing, the respondent stated.
They explained they did not see much of it as they were put in the parking area of the facility. They did however see about 15 cars in white and blue colors. When several pictures were shown to them, the respondents were able to identify the cars as similar to the ones of the Greek police.
The respondents testified that these people took them to the back side of the facility where there was a “small park”. These people went through the backpacks which were brought with them. The interviewees added that one of the people in uniform found a notebook which was a book to learn Greek without a teacher. The people in uniform all started making fun of them because of the book. The couple remarked they could hear the words “malaka” and “Cuban’s malaka” said to them over and over again, but did not understand much else (as these people spoke in Greek). Another officer had apparently learned how to say the word “shit” in Spanish, so was also repeating this over and over again at the Cuban couple. One man in blue, who they referred to as the “boss”, was reportedly also one of the people to tell them “malaka” and was looking down on them. He was “being rough and very aggressive”, remarked the husband.
The Cubans were speaking to these people in uniform in Spanish, but they did not understand them. The Cubans reported that they were explaining their situation and story in Spanish as well as asking for political asylum. But the police demanded them to speak in English.
This lasted for about what seemed like 40 minutes to one hour for the respondents. The Cubans remarked that these people in uniform seemed to enjoy mocking them and the whole ordeal. During this time, the couple was also reportedly searched, and they said that the people in uniform even enjoyed this. They reportedly searched everything – starting by going through their bags. The respondents recalled that then, the people in uniform conducted a body search on them both, rigorously searching through their clothes. When they were going through their clothes the persons in uniform were ordering them to pull their shirts up, then put them down, open their mouths, shut their mouths, and so on, the respondents declared. They added that the ropes on their clothes were also cut – including the waist strings on their jackets and also the laces on their shoes. The husband was searched by a male officer and the wife was searched by a female officer.
After all of this, they were taken inside the building. They described seeing very tall walls where they were brought in, but could not see much else as they were taken to the back of the building. The back door was described as a metal door. They entered this room that was described as “full of charts and posters” identified as having “oriental language” written on them – the Cubans said it could have been Arabic or Farsi. They were walked by the people in uniform through a corridor. They declared having seen some rooms which were made with “barbed wire” around. They assumed that these rooms were used as holding cells. They explained that they were hurried along so they did not see much else.
They then walked into a holding cell, which had eight bunk beds in it, quite big, approximately 6 x 10 meters in size. They described that the bunk beds did not have mattresses, just the metal frames of the beds. These frames were screwed into the floor. The people in uniform gave the couple dirty blankets. Inside this cell was reportedly a squat toilet, described as a squat toilet. The husband was unsure if it could be flushed, but the wife said it could be. There was also a metal sink in the corner which had running water. “It looked like a pig sty, very dirty”, the husband explained.
At the end of the corridor, you could see an exit where they explained the people in uniform. They could not see the door but could hear it as it reportedly had a lock on it.
The respondent added that next to it, there was another holding cell, which was smaller. It had two bunk beds, which had mattresses, blankets, and pillows. “It would not fit a third bunk bed, there was only 80 cm between the two beds” explained the respondents. No one was in either cell when they arrived. The couple declared that at around 1 am on 29th January, two uniformed persons (dressed the same as before) brought them two boiled eggs and a piece of frozen bread. They were reportedly not given any water. The wife explained that she was on her period, so she asked for sanitary towels but no one answered her question. So she tore her pullover to make it into a sanitary towel. The husband also had a strong headache in the early morning, and since they took his backpack with his migraine medication he was not able to alleviate his pain. He declared that no one helped him when he asked for it. However, they declared that they were given back their passports, identification cards, religious trinkets, and photos of their grandson.
According to their testimony, just before 3-4 am on the 29th of January, the couple was moved into the smaller cell. They were ordered to come out of the bigger cell and put into the smaller cell.
And then just after this, at approximately 3-4 am on 29th January, others were reportedly brought in: 30 people, all men apart from an 8-year-old Syrian child and a Syrian woman. The oldest age was about 35-40 years old. The nationalities of these people were Syrian, Afghan, and Moroccan. Just before these people were brought in, they were moved into this smaller cell. The couple did not see the group, and only saw them when they were eventually taken out of these cells. They did not see any person in uniform approaching the cell to give these people food or water. They just heard “go go go go” when the other people arrived, assuming that the people in uniform were ushering them inside quickly. The couple recalled that one of the persons in uniform spoke to the group, but they could not exactly tell who it was or what was said and to whom.
The respondents declared that at approximately 6-7 am on the morning of 29th January they were all removed from their cells. The husband was sure that it was about 7 am when they were loaded into a vehicle. He counted 32 people, including him and his wife. The vehicle they were loaded into was described as a blue van but with no insignia or symbols on the sides so they could not tell if it was a police van. Inside this van, they spoke to each other saying “Where are you from?”.
Inside, the van was described as completely empty. It was just metal. It had no windows. The husband remarked it was a very old van. Everyone in the van was reportedly either kneeling or sitting. The couple was the last two persons to be put into the van. They declared that there was not enough space for them to sit down so they stood.
They were then driven to a new detention site, which they described as a “facility”. The couple remarked it was a short drive, of approximately 10 to 12 minutes. The driving was described as “very violent and aggressive”, like before. “The road was not a good road”; they explained that it could have been a paved road. They added that the new place they ended up at was very close to a road. This road was described as “a paved main road”, located just after a bridge (reportedly a highway bridge), just as they turned right off the road. They were able to see a bit through the door of the van, so they could look out a little bit.
This building was described as having very high walls, similar to the previous one and they entered the van between two high walls. The van door was opened and they were taken out of the van. This was done by eight people who were present at the “facility“.
This included seven people, described as having balaclavas in desert green trousers with different pullovers – some were wearing white pullovers and others were wearing green pullovers. They were holding guns and batons. The “boss” of this group, as the couple referred to him, was reportedly wearing a balaclava, green pullover, and green trousers. He did not have a gun.
The couple described that there was a very small building, in the center of the parking lots. Nearby this building were four containers, which were described as full of backpacks. They declared that they had to put their shoes in these containers later. Also, the couple noticed four military trucks. These were described as an “old Russian war truck”, olive green in color. These trucks were “tough” on the outside, with a hard surface not covered with a soft tarp. The couple also described a white van and the van they were previously in.
According to the couple statement, two people came out of this small building. One was a young woman dressed in civilian clothes, but then later changed into the same blue border uniform as previously described. Then the other was a man dressed in the same uniform. Neither were described as wearing balaclavas, they had their faces on show.
After they were taken out of the van, the eight people reportedly ordered the group to dump their shoes in the containers and directly move into one of the military trucks. Only the women in the group and the children were allowed to keep their shoes. The couple recalled that one male member of the group was wearing only underwear. The Cubans assumed that this man had revolted somehow against the people in uniform.
This all happened very quickly. The people in uniforms allegedly shouted “go go go” to them. It took a total of around 15 minutes. The Cubans were not able to see who drove the truck as they were loaded into the truck before the driver got in.
They stated that this truck then drove for about 20-25 minutes before they stopped again. The driving was described as very fast. The Cubans remarked that they could definitely tell this road was not paved as the “car was jumping non-stop”. They could hear the branches of trees hitting the sides and top of the truck. They explained that they could not see anything, but they could hear and feel everything.
The husband explained that he did not witness any violence himself, but spoke about the situation of the guy without his shirt on and in his underwear. He was about 22 or 23 years old. The husband explained he could not identify his nationality. The husband explained that there was a bench inside the truck and people had surrounded this man (who was sitting on the bench) to give him some heat.
The Cuban couple recounted that they arrived at the river’s edge at around 8 am on 29th January. This river is located in the Evros/Meriç region. They still were not able to identify who was driving as when they arrived the doors of the truck were just opened to let them out. When they were taken out of the truck, they could see a white van parked close to the truck and people inflating two boats. They were described as small dinghies, blue and grey in color. They were inflatable but also paddle boats. “They looked like rescue boats,” remarked the husband.
They could just see trees and grass around them. They declared that there was a road which was next to the riverside which they were driven down to get to the pushback point. They described this place as “an informal place for boating boats”.
The Cubans explained that they did not recognize the people in uniform as the same as at the previous detention site as they were wearing balaclavas. There were reportedly seven people in total – wearing green trousers and different colour pullovers – similar to the uniforms previously identified at the other detention site. The couple explained that none of these people were wearing coats, and all were wearing balaclavas. There was also the “boss” whom the Cubans had previously mentioned. He was described as older than the other people. According to the couple, his behavior showed that he was in charge as when the people were taking money from the group at the riverside, he was putting it all in his pocket and not distributing it. Other people in uniform were apparently scared of him. The respondent stated that one officer gave a pack of cigarettes to someone in the group, and also gave cookies to a child and signaled and asked them to hide it from the boss. All of the persons in uniform reportedly communicated in Greek and spoke only a few words of English to the group.
The whole group was forcibly searched again by the uniformed persons, although the group had almost everything already taken from them. The Cubans reported that they had their passports, ID cards, religious trinkets, and photos taken from them again. They added that everyone in the group was divided into groups – men in one group, and women and children in the other. The group of males was reportedly forced to kneel down in lines of three in front of the white van by the river’s edge. The respondents stated that everybody was searched, including the children in the group. The husband explained that his money was taken and was not returned. The man without his clothes, and only in his underwear, was kneeling shivering with them on the ground.
The wife explained that in her group, males in uniform forced her to show what was underneath her pants. She showed them, and one man saw she had made her own sanitary towel. He reportedly ordered her to remove it. The couple added that the children in the group were ordered to remove their clothes, as well as socks and shoes, so the people in uniform could search everything.
This whole process took approximately one hour. The husband explained again he did not see any violence but saw a man in uniform push one of the people in the group. The Cuban man remarked, “we were very lucky, as we were pushed back in a group of 32 people and they were not given anything back to them”. They explained that their group was mostly Syrians and Afghans. “They [pushback group members] were all muslims. They [the people in uniform] treat Muslims worse”.
According to the couple’s testimony, they were all ordered to kneel in threes in front of the two dinghies. They were loaded into groups of 16 into the boats. The Cuban man was put into the first group, and the Cuban woman was put into the second group. However, according to the interviewees, the persons in uniform saw that they were together so moved the Cuban woman to be with her husband in his boat. In the first group, there was also a child with them. While they were loaded into the boat they reportedly were returned their passports, ID cards, religious trinkets, and photograph of their grandson.
In each boat, there were two people, which the Cubans explained were amongst the eight already identified as at the river. These persons were wearing the same uniforms. These two people were allegedly responsible for paddling the boats across the river. “They seemed very skilled as they were able to row across these strong currents” explained the Cuban man. They did not speak at all to the group so the Cuban couple has not been able to identify what language they spoke.
On the other side of the river, once they got to the Turkish side, there was a fallen tree close by. They explained that they used this tree to cross another small river that was immediately behind the one they were taken across on a boat. They explained that their surroundings looked like someone had been harvesting there as if it was agricultural land. All of the group stuck together here, with the Cuban couple crossing the tree first and then the Syrian woman and her child next. The Cubans explained that those who shared a common language were able to form their own group and communicate, but they all walked together.
The couple could not describe much on the Turkish side. They explained it was within the border area, sort of an arid environment. After showing the Cuban couple a map, we reportedly understood that the pushback location was very close to Neo Cheimonio on the Greek side and Elçili on the Turkish side. They passed what looked like a small container building that was described as if it should have had some people in uniform inside, but they did not see anyone. They saw in the distance a camouflage jeep.
They reported that they then walked one kilometer and then found cars waiting for them near a road, at an abandoned gas station – which was not near anything, on the Turkish side. The couple found a car that drove them to Istanbul. They paid $250 for themselves in a taxi to get to Istanbul. They explained that they contacted a friend who lives in Canada, who transferred them 500€ and were able to pick up the money when they arrived in Istanbul. The journey from this point took around five hours in total.
The Cuban man explained the story of why he and his wife left Cuba. He was reportedly part of a human rights group in Cuba that was fighting for freedom of expression and freedom. But, because of the ongoing dictatorship, he was afraid of being put in prison for a long time. He explained that he left Cuba because he felt that the government was coming for them. He and his wife sold everything and left.
“We would understand that if we applied for asylum in Greece and we did not get it. But, we don’t understand why they would take everything from you and leave you in Turkey”.