In the last fourteen days, BVMN-member No Name Kitchen have collected testimonies alluding to a spike in pushback violence in the Cetingrad area of the Croatian border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The veracity of these testimonies is further supplemented with reports from local people and media outlets. The characteristics of this trend in violence have been complex and coordinated assaults by Croatian police, consisting of repetitive baton strikes, lashing and kicking. These tactics leave an indelible mark on returned transit groups, visible in the extensive bruising and lacerations across the legs, torso and upper body of people subject to such violence. First hand testimony of recent pushbacks are examined here, alongside pictures and videos from the HR/BiH border which reveal the deterioration in border violence seen in the last fortnight.
A Trend in Violence
Since the 3rd October 2020, 36 persons were recorded in pushbacks from Croatian territory by BVMN, involving extreme physical assaults in each incident. The recurrence of these attacks at a rural area of green border South West of Velika Kladuša suggest that the violence is the product of a concerted, and well choreographed, effort by the Croatian police to deter transit, and brutalise groups making journeys with the onset of autumn. The spate of brutal attacks in this border area has been corroborated by the Danish Refugee Council via the Guardian newspaper. In a recent article, the outlet profiled the a concurrent series of horrific cases occurring in the border area of Šiljkovača, outside of Velika Kladuša in the last two weeks.
New Video Footage of a Pushback Group
In two different videos taken on 19th October, a group of men is shown in the immediate aftermath of a pushback. The first video was posted on social media Monday by a local Bosnian man living in the border area and is of very poor quality. The video shows a group of men displaying severe bruising on their backs while the man filming the videos declared in mixed Bosnian/English “Croatian police, Croatian police big problem”. Several screenshots of the video were posted to social media along with this initial video. The second video is of markedly better quality and shows a scene of men walking as they are asked by the man filming to display their wounds. This video was also supplemented by several images. The second set of materials obtained from a local activist was verified with the person who filmed the video, who described how it was made on 19th October at 11:00 am in a semi-secluded area of the border near Velika Kladuša.
The man who filmed the second video, described that Croatian authorities wearing black balaclava masks over their faces had apprehended him and his friends in Croatia and brought them back to the border, where they beat his friends with batons. This was just one of many groups pushed back that day, he says:
“They are now behave like animals, today they beat four groups like that”
By cross-analyzing the wound patterns of the individuals shown in these two sets of materials, we were able to match two individuals as being present in both videos, heavily suggesting that the two videos were taken around the same time concerning the same group of people.
First – Still from the first and second set of materials from 19 October, showing the same bruising patterns on a first individual; Second – Stills from the first and second set of materials from 19 October, showing the same bruising patterns on a second individual
While pushbacks have been occurring in this border area for over two years, the extreme nature of recent assaults by Croatian police mark a turn in the use of blunt weapons on individual transit groups. The case material published in the last two weeks by BVMN provides useful context to the Guardian’s findings, revealing the way severe flesh wounds and bruising are created. Respondents in multiple cases describe the way officers use pushback sites on the border as locations for staging prolonged physical assaults with batons and other weapons.
One group pushed back on 15th October described how they were beaten for an hour by the Croatian police, resulting in a litany of bruises, contusions and scars. Describing the assault he shared how:
“They were beating me from every side with everything,” the respondent said. “With the baton, they hit me with their fists, they kick me. On my back, on my head, on my legs, everywhere.”
The respondent also details the humiliating way the beaten men were forced to lie prone on top of their fallen companions, the Croatian police effecting a “pyramid” shape seen in several other cases in October. Finally, they were forced to undress down to their underwear, before being issued death threats at gun-point.
The resulting wounds represent the painful aftermath of the pushback, and also a crude marker of performative violence engineered by the Croatian police. The recurrence of long lateral impact injuries on the back and torso support the testimony of groups who were subject to beatings with batons, either from a horizontal arch while standing, or from an overhead plane when laid face-down on the ground (as in a case from 11th October).
Another testimony of a pushback on 16th October from Zagreb to a similar location outside of Velika Kladusa described the same tactic in which the men were “laid down parallel to one another onto the ground, and then two more men were laid perpendicular on top of the first two, like a crosshatch.”
When compared to the catalogue of injuries shared in the recent article by the Guardian newspaper, forensic examination of the wounds highlights a consistency in the types of bodily trauma imparted on people at the Croatian border. Contusions around the lesions on people’s bodies show large haematomas, meaning marked internal bleeding has occurred, which would be consistent with the application of heavy blunt force, via kicking or a baton of some kind. There is also evidence in the welts on the back and central buttocks of some people to suggest that a whip or lash was used to break the skin, creating lacerations to the surface. The impact of these blows were exacerbated by the fact the people were stripped half naked before the assault, increasing the friction on peoples skin.
Besides the stark similarity of the methods used in the severe violent pushbacks in the last two weeks, the shared location for this violence is also worrying. All cases collected within the Border Violence Monitoring Network matching this trend in recent weeks took place within the jurisdiction of the Cetingrad Border Police Station, as did each of the cases brought to the Guardian by the Danish Refugee Council. According to the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, the chief of this station, Damir Butina, recently spoke at a training event for 36 new Croatian Border Police leaders on “Frontex certified” border procedures.
Often, the most severe perpetrators of violent push backs are described as wearing black uniforms and balaclava masks which are inconsistent with those worn by the country’s dedicated border police. According to our research these uniforms are consistent with those worn by the Croatian Ministry of the Interior’s Intervention Police Units, which are deployed to the border from police stations all over the country. While multiple different units of the Croatian police are implicated in pushback procedures, the Ministry of Interior’s Intervention Units are frequently the ones tasked with the final violent removal – and their black uniforms and masks correspond directly with this recent spike in violence around Cetingrad.
The physical evidence from recent pushback cases also matches up with the toolkit of formal and informal weaponry used by these units of the Croatian police. The blunt trauma injuries can be attributed to the use of standard police issue batons, meanwhile the whipping injuries are likely to have come as the result of telescopic batons or tree branches which are often repurposed at border areas to thrash people.
Left: Image of billy-club style baton supplied to Croatian authorities and used in pushbacks. Right: Image of telescopic style batons supplied to Croatian authorities and used in pushbacks. These images were taken of a pushback to Bosnia via a hidden camera in October, 2018
The occurrence of these attacks along an otherwise unassuming stretch of the Bosnian-Croatian border alludes to the lengths with which Croatian authorities are willing to go to secure the European Union’s external border. The material covered in this blogpost suggests that the violence is the product of a concerted effort by the Croatian authorities to deter transit and brutalize groups attempting to make journeys further into Europe. The spate of violent attacks in this border area has been corroborated by the Guardian newspaper, and by local media who have interviewed beaten transit groups upon their return to Bosnia’s Una-Sana Canton. While pushbacks have been systematically carried out along this stretch of the Bosnian-Croatian border for over two years, the extreme nature of recent assaults by Croatian police mark a violent turn to already violent practices.