On Tuesday, the 19th of October around 11 pm, a transit group of 53 men, mostly from Afghanistan, but also from Pakistan, was apprehended by Croatian authorities in a forest area around one kilometer south of the highway E65, around 5 km south of the Croatian village of Zdihovo at the Slovenian border. Starting from the Bosnian city of Bihać, the group had been walking for seven days already, mostly through rain. The 25-year old respondent from the Pashtun region of Pakistan remarked that it had also been raining that day. The respondent related they mostly had no tents or proper rain gear, and that all of the group was wet but just kept on walking. When they encountered police there were about two days of walking distance remaining until the Italian city of Trieste. According to the respondent, they had just crossed the train line running south of the E65 road and were at the time of apprehension sleeping, having made camp trying to rest for some hours.
The 14 male officers who apprehended them had arrived in four mostly black and gray private cars – one VW, one Mercedes, and a Renault Clio and Megane. Reportedly, they wore army green uniforms and first surprised them with flashlights pointed at them in the dark, shouting “Stop, we’re police! Sit! Don’t stand up!”, telling them to raise their hands, which the respondent said the transit group did after they sat down on the ground.
The respondent related the officers introduced themselves by saying “Welcome to Croatia!” They continued by remarking: “We don’t hit you, we don’t do anything to you, because this is our responsibility, so don’t run. If you run away, we will shoot you.” The respondent said they recognized that the men belonged to the police forces and followed their orders. The officers then told them to stand up and put their bags in front of them, positioning themselves away from them in a line which the officers surrounded to cover the big group. (“’How many people in the group?’ We answered 53 people. ‘Come make a line!’”) The respondent suspected the officers wanted to move their belongings out of their reach so they could not run away with them.
The transit group then had to walk with the Croatian officers for what the respondent remembered as 20 minutes. During their walk, they were also crossing the train line again. The officers then told them to sit down and called for other police forces who arrived after two hours of waiting in four white vans, which had ‘Policija’ written on them. Each van contained two officers, in total eight, of whom one was a female. They were all wearing dark blue uniforms with ‘Policija’ written on the back. While waiting, the respondent remarked that he asked the officers in the green uniforms not to turn on the AC to a cold setting in the car that they would be driven in. This was the 5th time he had been pushed back from Croatia, and this had happened every previous time.
“If the weather is cold, they’re using cold air conditioning. If the weather is hot, they’re using the drying [hot setting].”
They told him not to worry and reportedly passed this information on to the arriving police officers, telling them this was a ‘good group’ who also had not tried to escape. This new set of officers then drove the group of 53, who had been split up into the different vans, for up to two and a half hours. After which they were exchanged into five other, blue, vans, also with the word ‘Policija’ written on them in white letters. The respondent related that an additional van had come because when the initial officers had detected them, they had asked the new officers to later provide an additional van for transport, because of the big group size. In general, throughout the interview, the respondent made a strong differentiation between the officers in green uniforms, which he referred to as ‘army commando’ and who he claimed normally apprehended them; and the officers in the dark blue uniforms, which these initial officers usually handed them over to.
“They [the green officers] have a good attitude with the migrants: ‘No problem, this is our duty’ I don’t say anything to you, I don’t hit you, but don’t run away. You have anything in your bag, you can eat, no problem.’ But the ones in the green dressing, they’re giving us to the blue ones for the deporting. They use abusing words, ‘Do you have phones? Do you have money?’ […] ‘Otherwise, I will kill you and I will beat you.’ Good phones and money they are putting in their own pockets. […] I don’t talk with the blue ones because the blue ones are so serious. If you talk to them they say ‘Ah, no shouting, shouting! And don’t talk, sit down. Sit down!’ But the green one gave us a chance to talk.”
The respondent also related that for about ten minutes he was able to have a conversation with one of the officers in the green uniforms, asking “Please Sir, I have a question”, upon which the officers told him to stand up and speak. The conversation supposedly went similar to this:
“We’re refugees, we want asylum here. So why the Croatian police doesn’t issue refugee and asylum here? He answered ‘I’m sorry brother, this is not my responsibility, not my duty. […] This is the problem of government, not my problem. Because the government is not fair to the people in giving refugees asylum. We catch you, I’m very sorry for that because you spent a very difficult time. We catch you because this is my duty, my responsibility. The upper ones call me: ‘Catch the people, don’t give them chance to transit the border.’”
The respondent told that he also asked the officers for asylum:
“’Why don’t you give us asylum? Give us refugee asylum!’ They said: ‘No, go ahead with your own business, bye bye!’” [..] “We don’t have space for the refugees, we also have too much population in here, you can’t stay”,
to which the respondent replied it was no problem, they only wanted to cross Croatia to reach Italy.
At this point of the handover, the transit group was split up and the vans reportedly went at different times into different directions, in groups of 15, 18, and 20 (“[…] Because if you are police, how can you manage 53 people? Checking everything, it’s too much.”); with some people being driven to the Bosnia-Croatian border near to Šturlić, some closer to Velika Kladuša and some – including the 25-year-old respondent – to the border south of Bihać, closer to the IOM Lipa camp. They were a group of 20 in one van, which reportedly only had a capacity for 10 to 15 people. They then drove for another two to two and a half hours to the border. The respondent related that from what he observed the officers who first drove them said they were on duty in another city and thus handed them over to the new officers, which the respondent said he was unable to count because it was dark and they were quickly forced into the vans – “like sheep”, with the officers reportedly saying “You’re animals, sit down!” The white vans who had driven them there then returned to where they had come from.
“You know, there’s five hours distance [by car]. If someone comes from the Bosnian border, it’s a five hours distance, so someone is on duty in between. For example someone’s on duty here in Bihać, so they call to them because they are near. When they reached this police, they give them [the transit groups] to another police, the border police. They dress the same, in blue.”
After the first van, the respondent reported it had only been cold because of the temperatures outside, the officers driving the transit group in the blue van reportedly turned down the vehicle’s air conditioning to drop the temperatures even lower in the back of the van.
“Because we spent seven days in the rain. Jackets, trousers, everything is wet. So we ask: ‘Please, if you don’t open the hot air conditioning, please kindly, switch off the cold air conditioning.’ Police answered: ‘No, you’re animals.’ […] That time I was laughing, ‘…okay, okay. We’re animals, you’re human beings.’”
When asked, the respondent said that was not able to see the surroundings of the part of the green border they were driven to, because it was in the dark after midnight and the back of the van was blind. They also could not see the officers driving in the front, who were separated from them by a screen, reportedly monitoring them through a camera installed in the back of the van. Through this camera, the group also tried to get the officers’ attention, by signaling into it as multiple of them started to become sick during the drive as they were being driven at very fast speeds while taking sharp turns. According to the respondent, multiple people started vomiting. He related he became very upset and at the officers, also telling them that one of their group had a heart problem and that they should please stop the car, which the officers refused to do.
The actual pushback site the respondent described was one long white container next to a gravel road, with two vans parked next to it, from which they walked to the border. In total he was able to detect eight officers in the same dark blue uniforms with ‘Policija’ written on them; six men and two women who were with two dogs, which the respondent described as German shepherds. The respondent said they asked the transit group who spoke English and ensuingly told him to translate. He was asked to order the group to collect their phones and money in a plastic bag. Then closed the bag and gave it to another officer. They were also asked what they had in their bags, which they then opened. The officers then proceeded to put the bags, including their food consisting amongst other things of chocolate, biscuits, noodles, and some bottles, in a hole in the ground and burned them using oil.
“In front of us, they opened it. The other things, they threw in the garbage, our bags as well […] full bags were thrown in the hole. They also put some oil and burned it with a lighter.”
The respondent, however, remarked being able to speak English and translate only drew additional violence and beating from the officers; when asked why he related:
“…because I can help you. For instance, you’re Croatian police: There’s a lot of people, they can’t speak [English] very well, they can’t speak another language. And I’m speaking four languages, Turkish, English, Pashtu, Urdu. So you can talk to all of the group, but nobody will understand what you’re saying.… So they asked who speaks English, I said ‘Okay, I speak English.’ First of all, they say ‘How many people? Where do you go?’ I translated for them. ‘You have phone, you have money?’’ Even I translate everything, they collect everything, still – they’re hitting me. Why? Because I help you?! And they even say to me ‘because you’re the boss of this and this!’”
According to the respondent, they were each wearing three jackets and pairs of trousers because of the cold; the officers told them to undress to check them and then also threw the additional pairs of clothing away. Searching their bodies, the respondent remarked the officers were also touching their genitals.
“And they also – I’m sorry to say it – use some sexual- […] They also put their hand inside the underwear, they’re checking inside also. […] You can check the body, no problem. Why you check the inside? Because you cannot put the bomb or gun inside there, you can check it. What the hell is going on? They said ‘Don’t talk, this is our duty. If you talk too much, we will break your mouth.’”
When the transit group was forced over the border, the officers positioned themselves in such a way that the six men were beating them in pairs of two, in each case one holding a gun resting in their hand and one holding a baton ready to beat them. The first two officers in the line, in which they were forced over the border, were reportedly using their foot to kick them and sent them along to the next two who beat them with their batons on their knees and other spots, along to the third pair of men who beat them with their batons specifically on the head
The respondent remarked that everyone was beaten, including the minors of the group, and that five of the men of the group, including himself, sustained lump swellings on their heads from the beating.
From this third point, they were then pushed to reach the two women who let the two dogs loose to them on a very long leash, which the respondent said were barking very aggressively, upon which all of the group started running very fast into different directions over the border to escape the animals. One on the group reportedly sustained an injury being bitten into the backside of his hip by one of the dogs.
“I’m not against the Croatian police, I’m not against Italian people, I’m not against the Pakistani government. I’m against those people who don’t know humanity, those people who do violence to us. […] because everywhere there are good people, there are bad people. Because it’s not the same, like the five fingers of the hand [a Pashtun saying]. I’m against the system, the politicians.”
At the border the respondent stressed the officers were also shouting aggressive insults at them:
“They are using abusing words for the migrants, like – excuse me, sorry to say it – ‘Motherfucker, son of a bitch, son of a dog.’ […] ‘Why you cross the border, why you come again?’”
“We’re crossing the border illegally – okay, it’s your right. Okay, you catch us. Don’t hit us, don’t use abusing words for us. […] We’re migrants, we also have rights.”
After the pushback, they then walked back on foot for what the respondent remembers as six hours to the city of Bihać to return to their makeshift camp and get help from local organizations. The respondent remarked a woman from one of the organizations whom he knew from before, at this time of the meeting, had not been able to recognize him because of his physical condition and completely pale skin. Finally, the respondent also expressed distress about the dichotomy of the EU countries, which he views as humanitarian states, and the EU’s financial support of border forces, like in Croatia, in apprehending them.
“The problem is also the European Union. Because they give you money, I know they give money not to let the people in here. ‘You can stop the people there.’ BUT the European union also told to them ‘Ok, we can also take refugees, give them asylum here’ […] They tell to them give refugees asylum on the one hand, but also tell them to catch the people.”