The 18th November at 2 am, the respondent, a 35 year-old man from Cuba, was pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia, in the surrounding area of Velika Kladuša, Siljikovaca, together with 10 people from Cuba.
The transit group consisted of 11 people from Cuba: 5 women, 5 men and a 17 year-old minor, the oldest member being 58 years old and the youngest one 17. As declared by the respondent, the transit group left Salakovac Reception Center in Sarajevo the 17th November at 7am. They found a passage to Lipa Camp, in Bihac, and then another one that brought them close to the border. At 3 pm they started walking up a hill. The respondent remembers firstly walking through a flat area, then crossing a small river and some bushes, later on they got to the mountain and the forest. Reportedly, the group walked for around 7 to 8 hours up and down hills, climbing up really steep slopes and muddy areas that exhausted them. During the long walk some of the group members got injured with branches, some of them fell and needed help to walk, and the eldest member’s bones were hurting.
As it was declared by the respondent, the only lead they could follow was a GPS location of a paved road on the Croatian side. As they were instructed, once they arrived at this point they were to call a number that they were told being the “Croatian IOM” phone number to be able to express their will to seek asylum.
At around 11pm they arrived at the mentioned paved road, just when the rain started to fall heavily. Looking at the GPS they knew they were already in Croatia. As they were told, they contacted the “Croatian IOM” by WhatsApp, and reportedly they were told not to worry, and that the only thing they had to do was going to the closest police station and ask for asylum. They were asked for their complete names and surnames, the number of people in the group, the exact location and the age of the group members.
As they were told that they were safe, they came out onto the paved road and started following it. One hour later the respondent recalls walking next to a statue of crucified christ on the side of the road, and 5 minutes later seeing the first police vehicle, at around 11pm-12am.
The vehicle was described by the as a black jeep, and when the transit group spotted it the respondent describes the moment joyful:
“We thought: oh perfect, we don’t have to worry anymore then, our problems are over, the IOM told us the police would help us”.
Afterwards, he states that two people that he refers to as “police officers” came out of the car and told them to sit on the side of the road, it was still raining. Reportedly, the officers were dressed in black uniforms and one of them had an insignia of the croatian flag on his arm and the other one had a plaque on his belt. Once the transit group members were sitting on the ground, the officers started counting them, asking for their nationalities and their ages. The respondent reports that one of them suffered from high blood pressure; they didn’t do anything about it when he was feeling sick. Their phones were taken from them and put into a bag. Then the respondent declares to have seen one of the officers talking on the walkie talkie.
“Me acerqué y le dije: asilo. Y me dijo: si, si, no hay problema. Así que pensamos que ese era el procedimiento normal” (I approached him and said: “asylum”, and he answered: “yes, no problem”, so we thought that was the normal procedure).
Reportedly, the transit group stayed at the spot for about an hour, getting wet under the rain, until a police van appeared.
“They were in the cars, sheltered and warm, and we were outside, in the cold getting wet under the rain.”
When the van appeared, the respondent recalls that 3 more people he also refers to as “police officers” came out and the respondent would see them talk, laugh and he remembers thinking: “What’s happening? Why aren’t they putting us in the van?” Then a new van appeared, both of them were described by the respondent as white with blue stripes.
Some more officers came out of the van, a woman among them, and started to search the people on the move. As the respondent declares, they were separated from the group one by one, then they were asked to undress almost completely, even if they complained that they were really cold and it was raining.
“They didn’t care, they said: “take everything off”.
Reportedly, the respondent as well as the rest of the group, was asked to empty his bag on the floor, under the rain and on a muddy ground, everything was wet after that.
After being searched they were loaded into the van one by one: the respondent declares the van felt cramped. After 5 to 10 minutes driving the lights inside went off, up to the point where they couldn’t see each other. The respondent was scared and not understanding what was happening. They were driven for around 30 minutes more and they were dropped off, and told: “go”, while pointing at a dirty road. The bag with the mobile phones was then given back to them, but they later noticed that the chargers and power banks were missing.
At around 2am they got out of the van and the police officers walked them towards a nearby road, only shouting “go, go, go”. The respondent, as he declares, asked the officers for asylum and the answer he got was:
“we don’t give asylum on Fridays, try again Sunday. You are too many, there’s not enough space for you in the police station”.
Then he was pushed by the officers, to the point he almost fell onto one of the girls in the group. Reportedly, the officers followed them to the border line and then they stayed there to make sure the transit group would go back to the Bosnian side.
As it was reported, the group walked for some time, under the rain. After a few meters, they noticed that the police van had turned off the big light. They decided to look for shelter under some bushes, since they were so wet and tired; they were completely disoriented.
“Lloviendo no veíamos nada, no sabíamos donde estábamos, no sabíamos donde íbamos. Ya la ropa no daba para más, las manos no respondían, mucha agua en los zapatos, eso fue horrible” (Raining, we couldn’t see anything, we didn’t know where we were, we didn’t know where we were going. Our clothes were too wet, our hands wouldn’t respond, lots of water in our shoes, it was horrible).
The rain was not stopping and the group stayed in the same spot for a few hours, reportedly trying to warm up each other. The respondent describes that location looked like a pushback location, they could see footprints and clothes around, “it looked as if they had pushed back other people there as well.”
At around 4-5am two members of the transit group, including the respondent himself, decided to leave the shelter and check if the authorities were still at the border. They got closer and they saw that even if the van light was off, there was still an officer monitoring the border. They then came back to the shelter with the rest of the group. After a couple of hours, at around 6-7am, the transit group decided to make another attempt to cross the border, since they couldn’t see any officers around. They crossed back to Croatia and 20 meters later they saw a van coming towards them.
Allegedly three officers came out of the van and they started to point at the Bosnian side, telling them to go back. Then the respondent asked for asylum again, they told the officers they did not have any food or water. They also told them they had called what they thought was IOM and were told that the police would help them; the officer replied: “call the Bosnian IOM now, then”, and started saying a phone number out loud in Bosnian. The people on the move could not understand it.
Reportedly, the respondent asked for the number again and then one of the officers pointed his baton on the respondent’s chest as a threat and told him to shut up and go back to Bosnia. Then the transit group started to walk back to Bosnia surrounded by the officers, one in the front of the group and two at the back, the ones at the back were laughing and making jokes. The transit group members did not understand what they were saying but they could hear the word “Cuba” several times.
At this point in the interview the respondent breaks into tears, “I’m just looking for a better life for my children, what am I going to tell them when they ask me where I am?”
Once they started to walk back to Bosnia, at around 9am, the respondent declares that they were really wet, shivering and tired, they were not feeling their legs anymore, they coul not take it anymore, they were lost and did not know where they were going since there was no telephone signal. They found some people on the way, and asked them to make a call, because they needed help, but no one supported them, “we were abandoned, no one wanted to help us there”. Then they entered into some abandoned brick houses, to get some rest, but it was so cold that they decided to go on.
At a certain point, 12 km from where they were pushed back, they found a spot with some connection and could find a safe space in which they found people that helped them and where our team found them.
When our team on the field found the transit group members, they were all close to hypothermia, shivering, they couldn’t feel their hands nor toes, they had lost their appetite and it took some days until they fully recovered. Reportedly, they were under the rain for around 7 hours, at 0-5 degrees. The respondent’s mobile phone was so wet that it was not working anymore.
“Más te tratan como si no fuéramos humanos; está bien, si quieres virarme, vírame, pero dame por lo menos agua.” (They treat us as if we are not human; okay, if you want to take me back, deport me, but at least give me water.)