The respondent recounted a pushback involving approximately 200 people, including families, women and minors, onto an island in the middle of the Evros/Meriç river, on the Greek-Turkish border. This testimony contributes to a trend that has been observed in recent months, of frequent use of islands in Evros/Meriç as pushback locations [as described on page four of this report].
The respondent and 7 other Syrians, all aged between 20-37, were apprehended about two hours walking from the Greek border near Uzunköprü on their journey for Thessaloniki on November 7. Six greek police officers – four dressed in military camouflage clothes with balaclavas and two dressed in all black with balaclavas – had been hiding amongst bushes and trees, and then suddenly appeared and told the respondent and his friends to stop and declared themselves as police. The two men in black clothes were holding guns, sticks and torches and the others in army clothes were carrying assault rifles.
When the respondent and his group were caught, they realised there were others who had been caught before them who were lying on the ground. Subsequently, the respondent and his friends were made to lie face down on their stomachs with their hands raised in front as well. “If someone didn’t understand, they [police] come and hit on the head and the back. Hitting by using a black baton” the respondent explained. The backpacks they wore on their backs protected them from the blasts from the batons, but they were also hit everywhere else on their body.
They were made to lie there for around 15 minutes while other people were rounded up as well and before three white trucks turned up to take them away. The vehicles had two doors on the back of the cars, and none on the side. Though they had three trucks, the police put all 40 of them in one of the vehicles. The respondent explained that there were no indications on the cars, not even registration plates.
While they were lying on the floor, they were ordered to hand over their phones by the police. “We were laying down, using the sticks [they were] knocking our heads one by one” the respondent recounted. The respondent said he had no phone, even though he had it hidden.
Once they were put in the same vehicle, they were taken back the way they came. The respondent got talking to the people in the truck with him and explained there were Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and two Turkish nationals. The 40 people included several women and three kids, including a baby less than a year old, a girl who was 4-5 years old and her 10 year old brother. “In the middle of the way the car turned left, and then continued for 15 minutes. The total ride was about 45 minutes” explained the respondent when asked to recount the journey. After 45 minutes of very fast driving, they ended up at a detention site.
They arrived at 2.45am. They were all ushered into the detention site which is described as an abandoned building with a broken staircase and broken doors. 10 people wearing sage green uniforms and balaclavas were awaiting them there. The 6 officers who had apprehended them did not come inside. Everyone was ordered to take off all of their clothes, shoes and were searched by these 10 men.
The group of 40 was made to stand in a square while undressing. Many of them did not understand the orders so the men in balaclavas used one person as an example and demonstrated what they meant. The respondent explains that they were looking for money, phones and other valuable items and took them for themselves. He recounted that when they found money, they just put it in their jacket pockets.
When the respondent was asked what happened when they found phones, he said “they hit them. I don’t know exactly where they hit them, as they hit everywhere in the body. Using a stick and electrical stick”, referring to an electric discharge weapon. He managed to hide his phone from the police when they were searching him as he sneakily picked up his own clothes that had been thrown into the pile to be searched, but had not been searched yet. He explained because of how busy it was, no one noticed. The officers also cut the laces of the shoes.
Once clothes had been searched, the apprehended group was ordered to pick them up and put them back on, before being taken down a corridor with three cells and ordered to go into one of the small cells. The respondent explained that there were 35 people already inside there, all of them were sitting on the tiled floor of this cell and some were sleeping on top of each other. There was no room for anyone in the cell, or any space for anyone else to sit or sleep. “No door, no water, no tap, nothing at all” the respondent explained as he described the cell. “There was a toilet in the ground, there was no light.”
The following day passed. No one spoke to them, no one brought any water or food. Then around 6pm, after approximately 16 hours in the cell, cars arrived to take them away. Two men came wearing army clothes and told them to get up and come with them. The two men apparently hurt someone as there was a scream and so the rest of the people, including the respondent, refused to follow them. Five more guards were called to help get the group out of the cell. They entered the cell and started to hit everyone to make them go outside.
Eventually everyone was taken outside where they were met with two cars, same as before. At this point there were approximately 70 people gathered, including six children. These cars then took the 70 people on a 30 minute journey before they arrived at the Evros/Meriç river. As before, the responded describes the vehicles were being driven irresponsibly fast.
They waited in the vehicles for 10 minutes while the masked men were checking to see if the Turkish police or military were on the other side of the river. Then they were forced out of the vehicles and made to wait next to the river. While they were waiting, they were being searched again.
There was a rubber dinghy. Two Kurdish Syrians were driving the boat across the river, and were communicating to the people who were apprehended in Arabic. The boat was black, 2-2.5 metres by 3-4metres in size and inflatable. When the boat had six people, they were rowed across. When they arrived in the middle of the river, they were hit with tree branches and told to jump out to swim to the other side. They initially thought it was the Turkish side, but it turned out it was just an island. The island was about 100 metres wide, and identified as very long, covered in sand, mud and big trees.
They walked across the island and saw the lights of Turkish army on the other shore. The Turkish soldiers noticed them as they were shouting questions like “Who are you?” “where are you from?” as well as telling them to stop and go back. The people on the island pleaded with the Turkish authorities saying that there were women and children, and they had no water or food. The Turkish authorities told them they were ordered not to allow them into Turkey. The soldiers also claimed that this island was under international mandate, where both sides (Greek and Turkish) were not allowed to help. The location of the island is 41°19’05.7″N 26°29’30.1″E, on Turkish territory.
For the next four days, the group was stuck on this island while more and more people were brought from the Greek side. In the end, it was 200 people on the island, including women, children and a pregnant woman. The respondent explained that since he had kept his phone, he contacted the emergency 155 number to speak with a senior officer who said they could not do much. The respondent on the island contacted people from Alarm Phone and Josoor, which published videos and stories about the incident and alerted the Greek and Turkish authorities as well as Frontex. About an hour after the footage was published, the Greek authorities came and took everyone from the island. This happened on the 5th day, November 11.
Greek men wearing military uniforms with the Greek flag, and some others wearing all black, arrived on the island at about 2pm and took everyone 5 by 5 in a boat which had an engine. When they arrived back to the Greek side, two large cars were awaiting them, both similar in colour to the army clothes. The vehicles could fit the 200 people inside them.
The respondent and the other 200 people were driven for 2 hours. The people thought they were being taken to a camp, but in fact they were taken to a Greek police facility. They drove during the day and the vehicles had windows so the respondent was able to witness driving through villages and seeing people walking to markets. They arrived at what was a small football field and unloaded from the vehicles. Everyone was searched and told to take off their jackets. A Greek army officer searched the respondent and found his phone. Suddenly, five more officers came to him and started hitting him everywhere, the respondent covered his head with his hands. “They kept hitting me with metal sticks,” the respondent proclaimed, “I was the only one they were hitting among all 200 people as I had the phone”.
Next to the football field was a jail, the officers took him there. There were cells with mattresses in. There were already 30 people in the cells, and the respondent explained these were new people and he did not know them. The respondent waited in the cells until just before sunset when cars, the same as before, came to take them away. They drove for about 2.5 hours, definitely longer than before, and arrived at a different spot on the river. By the time they got there it was dark.
The officers who took them to the river used night vision binoculars to check the Turkish side of the river to see if Turkish authorities were present. The same two Kurdish Syrians took the people by boat, 7 by 7 this time, across the river. However, in the group the respondent was in, when they were taken by boat across the river, they were hit and pushed out of the boat. As a result of this, the boat capsized. The respondent walked out of the water on the Turkish side, and the two Kurdish Syrians swam back to the Greek side.
The respondent walked through fields for a while. He heard the call to prayer coming from a nearby village. Near the fields where the respondent was walking there was a large main road for trucks going to Greece. The respondent did not notice any signs as he was just following the sound of the prayer call. He arrived at a place to buy some food and water, with the little money he had left (hidden the same way as he had hidden the phone). Two gas stations were nearby, one was yellow and green. The respondent explained that he met a driver who agreed to take him to Istanbul.