This testimony includes three Cuban respondents, who were part of a group of 20 people from Cuba, including two pregnant women and a minor girl, and one Bolivian. They all left Bihać on March 7, 2022, and crossed the border by foot around 8 or 9 PM. They kept on walking in the forest on the Plješevica mountain, to then split into 2 groups, each taking a different path.
The first respondent describes how the two groups kept communicating with each other by phone. At some point though, the other group stopped responding. He assumed the police had caught them, therefore he invited everyone to be more cautious. When they stopped to rest for two or three minutes, they saw some shadows at a distance of about 20 meters. He encouraged his friends to stay calm, as he realized that the police had probably spotted them. Indeed, they were soon surrounded by officers flashing lights at them. There were about 9 male policemen, all wearing black balaclava masks and what the respondents describe as black Interventna Jednica Policija uniforms.
I thought to myself, “Here we are, it’s over. Let’s all try and stay calm.”
The police took all their cell phones and pushed them to the ground, forcing them to sit in the middle of the forest. They were then taken to a different spot, about 10 minutes of walking away. The respondent describes the place as not far from the road but hidden by the thick forest. Moreover, the group of people on the move were put behind a police van, so no one could see them. The respondent tried to check the license plate of the vehicle, but it had been covered. It was a regular white van with ‘policija’ written on its side.
At that point, the police forced them to take off their jackets and empty all their pockets. Three of the Cuban men were forced to undress completely and were strip-searched in front of everyone else. Moreover, the two pregnant women were frisked, as well as the seventeen-year-old girl, who was left extremely disturbed by such a violation.
Every single piece of clothing was inspected and when the policemen found money, they just put it in their pockets. They took all of our electronic devices, including chargers and cables, and put them aside in a garbage bag. They took all of our passports and checked all of our backpacks. They even found the hidden money. As you know, most of our banks in Cuba are Russian, so because of the current situation with the war in Ukraine, I thought it’d be best to withdraw it and keep all my money with me. So, they took all the money I had…900 euros. They left me with nothing. The policeman who was inspecting me saw my wedding ring and ordered me to take it off. I said, “Please officer, it’s my wedding ring.” He just said, “I don’t fucking care, give me that!”
In the police van, they found the other group of Cubans, that had previously split from them and that had been caught before. The policemen forced the two groups to sit in the same vehicle, thus there were 21 people loaded in there. In the van, there was no heating and one of the guys felt sick and threw up. The police didn’t stop when asked to, not even when the group told them there were two pregnant women among them. The police were driving for about 45 minutes when they stopped in the middle of nowhere and forced all of them to get off the van and drop their backpacks on the side of the road.
“I don’t care what you have inside, just leave it there”, the police told us. They didn’t even let us take a bottle of water. Nothing.
After that, the two groups were forced into the van again. The police drove for about an hour and a half. When the van finally stopped, the respondent recalls hearing some noises outside: as the police opened the back doors of the van, two big pit bulls started barking at them. The respondent describes how they had to jump off the van in fear of being bitten. One of the dogs scratched him on the side and left a visible mark on his jacket.
One of the policemen kept a dog on the leash in one hand and a gun in the other hand. Another policeman had a big shotgun (similar to a 44 caliber).
One of my friends is very religious. He had some icons of Saints in his backpack. He was desperate and was asking the police to give them back, but this police man pointed his shotgun to his temple. We all told our friend to calm down, we were really afraid it would escalate. His wife is pregnant and was really in a shock.
The respondent asked the police officers in English to leave them at least one phone to orient themselves, but his request was denied. They were left there alone, exhausted and scared. The person who was sick in the van was still feeling poorly and they were all worried for the two pregnant women. Luckily, one of the pregnant women had managed to hide her cell phone, which helped them navigate their way.
It was dark and cold, we didn’t know exactly where we were. At some point, I looked up and I heard some noises. I spotted what could have been a pack of wolves. I didn’t say anything to the group, I just encouraged them to walk faster.
They walked for about five hours and when they could finally get good phone reception, they managed to contact an organization that helped them get back to Bihać.
Cuban people, we are raised to be afraid of the media. But this is not Cuba, we can’t keep quiet. We need to say everything that happened, we simply cannot keep quiet. We are not afraid, we have nothing to lose. In Bosnia, police do their job and they follow the law, I understand that. But when I spoke with them, they told me, “You are a migrant, you have no rights.” And what about my human rights? Croatia is part of the European Union, where is the Dublin Act?
We are all devastated and traumatized. The girls have been crying for two days. I am a really strong person, but I can barely sleep now. I try to sleep at night and wake up suddenly and in shock.
The second respondent, who was also part of the same group, reports that the police stole two gold earrings and a gold necklace. He had bought them with the money he had earned working in Serbia and he was planning to gift them to his daughter once finally reunited. The theft of objects such as wedding rings, precious gifts, and religious icons is described by the group as a greater violation and an even deeper wound to heal.
The third interviewee was part of the group of Cubans caught before the group of the first and second respondents. He describes the dynamics of their apprehension. They crossed into Croatia around the same time as the other group. While walking, they spotted the police, so they hid in the forest. The policemen started looking for them with flashlights. They stayed quiet and still, but they couldn’t see the lights anymore. After approximately five minutes, about ten policemen were suddenly surrounding them.
I told them, “We are Cubans”. They said, “No problem.” I told them that I am gay and that my partner was with me. Because I am gay and black, they pushed me to the ground and started beating me up.
The police made the group walk until they reach a road. There, the police searched their backpacks and confiscated all of their belongings.
They took everything from me: money, cell phone, passport, even my new trousers. We asked them to please grant us political asylum, we all asked but they ignored us. We are left with nothing.
His group was then loaded on the van by the police, who spotted the other group of Cubans soon after.
All the respondents and the people involved in the same pushback report a sense of loss and disorientation. Too afraid to attempt to cross the Croatian border again, left with nothing, and traumatized, some will try to ask for asylum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a very lengthy and often unsuccessful process. The extremely difficult situation in Cuba and the very long trip to the external borders of the European Union make it impossible to return home. Thus, they describe their feeling of powerlessness in this protracted limbo. For now, their main worry is to find a cell phone and communicate to their families that they are still alive.