On Tuesday, the 28th of September 2021 between 7 and 8 pm, a transit group of seven Pakistani men was apprehended by Croatian authorities while crossing the Croatian highway 1, at the southern outskirts of the Croatian village of Broćanac (rough coordinates 45.062091, 15.609745). The 19-year old respondent from the Pashtun region of Pakistan states that they were trying to go get some food because they had run out of rations. The transit group, consisting of different ages with most people in their twenties, had been walking for three days already, starting from the Bosnian town of Bihać.
Then, as the respondent remembers, they encountered seven Croatian officers. He remembers them as around seven men, who were all dressed in clothes of a green-greyish “army” pattern, including green hats. Some of the officers looked very young. Upon encountering them, the officers, whose uniforms are consistent with those normally worn by units of the Croatian Specijalna Jednica Policija (SJP), asked the group if there were any more of them, to which they replied that it was just the seven of them. They were then told to “sit here and don’t speak”, while a part of the officers went back into the forest to look for other transit groups. The respondent said that they apprehended several other groups, each consisting of 10 to 15 people, in the following hours. The respondent remarked these officers did not use any further violence against them and also handed him a cigarette when he asked for it. They also called for additional support, which arrived around 15 minutes later in form of three additional officers in a white van that had nothing written on it.
During the detention, which reportedly lasted up to eight hours, the transit group, as they had not eaten in a long time, asked the officers for food, which they declined. The respondents described not having been able to sleep all night, as the temperature dropped. He described that they were freezing, and had symptoms of fever.
Around 4 am, the group, which now consisted of about 50 persons due to the number of persons apprehended during the night, was driven in three white vans by different officers to three different pushback locations. The respondent was able to reconstruct that about 20 persons were driven to the Bosnian-Croatian border near Velika Kladuša, about 14 or 15 persons to the border near the town of Šturlić, to which the respondent was also taken, and another group to another unknown separate location. According to the respondent, the vans were each only designed to hold up to six people and were therefore very cramped in the rear section where they were detained, separated from the officers in the front section by a windowless pane. These officers, reportedly four or five in number, who were in charge of their group, wore dark midnight blue trousers and long-sleeved shirts with “Policija” written in white on the back at shoulder height.
The 19-year-old respondent described his pushback point as a forest area, to which there were no roads but only a small gravel path, by the Korana River, which ran along the border with Bosnia there (45.022742, 15.766085). The respondent reported that the direct distance to the Bosnian-Croatian border from where they were staying was relatively short, only about 10 km as the crow flies. However, according to his recollection, the actual journey to the border took three to four hours through a large forest area. At the border, the officials to whom they were handed over asked the transit group for their passports and money. Police said: ‚Give me your passport!‘ I said ‘I don’t have a passport.’ So he said ‘Give me money!’ I said ‘I don’t have money’ So he said ‘Give me your purse!
The 19-year-old respondent then took out his wallet, but there was no money in it, as he had hidden it in the seams of his trousers; he stated that he had learned from previous experiences of this kind. The officers then pointed to the cheap gold-plated necklace the 19-year-old man was wearing. Desperate, he explained that it was not made of real gold (“Sir, it’s not golden, please don’t take it!”) and begged the officers not to take it, whereupon he was allowed to keep it. During the interview, he explained that it had been left to him by a romantic partner and that it had emotional value.
Still, the respondents reported the Croatian authorities took from them their phones, sleeping bag, jacket, and shoes without returning them, with two officers standing aside watching over them and a third one collecting them.
“The passengers [meaning People on the Move] are so poor, they don’t have money, they don’t have another mobile, there’s just one mobile for six people who need it for the game locations. But still the Croatian police says ‘Give me your mobile!’ Why do you take our mobiles? You’re not poor!’ I respect the Croatian police, but you’re not poor, your country’s better than ours! […] So why do you take the passengers’ mobiles, money, sleeping bags and hit us? […] We have just one mobile to talk to our home, our mothers and brothers, our family.”
Presumably relating to asylum, the authorities told them they were not allowed to stay, as they were not wanted in their country (“I don’t give you stay here.”), also warning them not to cross into Croatia: “Don’t come into my country and my country won’t come to you”, to which the 19-year old respondent pleaded: “I’m not coming into your country, I’m going to Italy!”
“I’m going to Italy, Germany. Why? Because I have more problems. You know my country is not good. There’s no work. So I’m going to another country, for work, for my life.”
During the pushback, the officers sprayed their eyes with pepper spray, which they said not only caused them intense pain but also left them unable to see anymore in the forest at night. Reportedly feeling very helpless they begged help from the officers, who refused to help.
Upon encountering the border, the officers told the transit group to “Go into the water!” to cross. They told them to put their hands up and walk in a line through the river to Bosnia, one by one, which the respondents tried to refuse but were then forced to do. One officer reportedly drew a knife from his belt, upon which another officer approached the man compelling him to put it back into his belt, but signaled to the thick branches of trees from the forest lying close to them which were then subsequently used to beat the group members while crossing the border. “They said to us ‘Shut up!’ ‘Quiet!’ ‘Move!’”
One respondent described that two of the officers stood to the side and sarcastically shouted to the group, “Welcome, welcome! Go to Bosnia!” while the other two officers stood on each side of the row and took turns hitting one after the other with the thick wood on the small of the back, the back of the calves and thighs and the back of the head.
On their walk back to Bihać, a Bosnian local they approached gave the group some clothes. In total, they said it took them about three to four hours to walk back from the location at the border to the center of Bihać.