Reclaimer: Due to severe food poisoning the respondent was in a very critical health condition at the time of the pushback. Therefore, accuracy of information on location might be reduced.
On April 3rd, 2022 around 7:30 pm the respondent and about 50 other people on the move (POM) were pushed back from Greece to Turkey. The respondent is a 22-year-old male Syrian and this is the first pushback he experienced.
He left his hometown Aleppo in February 2022 and came to Gaziantep, Turkey. The respondent traveled from Gaziantep to Istanbul on March 30, 2022, and met the other members of his initial transit group. The group consisted of six male Syrians in their 20s.
The respondent was not in charge of organising the crossing, therefore he does not know too many details of their journey and can just recount what he experienced.
The POM hired a driver to take them from Istanbul to the Edirne region. They paid 400 Turkish Lira each for the ride and the drive took around 3 hours. They arrived at a place between agricultural fields, outside of urban areas, where they met a smuggler, who had been organised by one member of the group. He had gotten in touch with him before and said he knew “someone” to help them to cross the border. The respondent clarified that this “someone” is a smuggler they paid to facilitate the crossing of the border river.
The smuggler waited at the meeting point with two assistants who carried an inflatable boat. The POM had paid 100 € each for the crossing of the river itself. After they met, the POM, the smuggler, and his helpers walked for about 3 km through agricultural fields until they arrived at the river side where the assistants started preparing the silver-coloured rubber boat with paddles. The river site was described as resembling a sandy coast with some trees and the river being relatively wide at this point.
The POM crossed the river at around 9 pm on March 30, 2022, with the rubber boat, driven by the smugglers’ assistants.
The Greek side of the river looked similar to the Turkish side and was also described as “coast-like” but without any trees and just with an agricultural field ahead. When they arrived there, the group started using the maps application on their phones and the GPS points they had set earlier. Their plan was to walk all the way to Thessaloniki and subsequently continue their journey from there to Europa via Albania. Apart from the river crossing they wanted to travel without the help of a smuggler.
The group walked for three nights and rested and hid in the forest during the day. Although they carried tents they only slept in sleeping bags as the terrain did not allow them to put them up and they were afraid to go to more spacious areas. The respondent recounted: “We only slept for a few hours at all. We were too afraid.”
At 8pm on April 1st, 2022, after resting for the day, the group ran out of water. They started walking and found some kind of a spring in the forest. They filled their bottles and drank from it and continued walking towards Thessaloniki.
The respondent started to feel physically unwell and his physical condition deteriorated dramatically within the next three hours. He started to throw up excessively and felt “terribly tired” and could not walk anymore. He was sure he got poisoned by the water.
The group left him alone in the middle of the forest at around 12 pm on April 1st, 2022.
He described the place where he was left as covered in trees and close to a kind of mountain and a valley “on the other side” close by. At this point, he still had his smartphone and communicated with his family in Syria. He sent videos of himself in the forest, of which a screenshot is included below, to them (Image 1). Also, he carried some medication which he took but his physical condition did not improve:
“Whatever I was drinking or eating, I was throwing up!”.
He stayed at the same place. “I was alone in the forest for 2 days and it was such a terrible time. There were terrifying sounds [of animals] around me, which got worse at night. I was sure – ‘I will die here.’”
Image 1: Screenshot: the respondent in the forest, made unrecognisable
After two days, on April 3rd, 2022, he used his phone to search for possibilities to get help as he feared for his life. On Facebook, he contacted Consolidated Rescue Group (CRG) , an independent NGO receiving calls of people in distress on land and sea and contacting the authorities on their behalf. He contacted them on April 3rd, 2022 at 1:15 am, sharing his coordinates and explaining his situation, and stating that he wanted to be helped by the authorities. They responded immediately, contacted the Greek authorities and shared a post consisting of his location and reinforcing the call for help. The post can be found here (see also Image 2) and the therein shared coordinates (41.370674, 26.296064) lead to this location in the Greek Soufli Municipality.
Image 2: Screenshot of Consolidated Rescue Group facebook post at 6:25 of 03.04.2022 (automatic translation). Names and profile pictures have been made unrecognisable.
The respondent waited until 6:39 am – this is the time indicated as “last seen” on his WhatsApp profile. Then, “the ‘commandos’ came”. He explained the term as referring to men in armoured uniform, “similar to the American army ‘commandos unit’”. Further, he described the four men as wearing black uniforms with “police” writing on the back and a Greek flag on the sleeve, carrying small weapons in the holster, holding batons, and wearing balaclavas, reportedly similar to the kind of bulletproof uniforms worn by the men in Image 3 below.
Two of the uniformed men approached the respondent in a very harsh and aggressive way, speaking to him in English. As he only speaks Arabic fluently, he did not understand exactly most of the time what they were saying. Among each other, the men spoke Greek. He told them in English that is sick and was asking for “ambulance, ambulance”. They did not provide any first aid and ignored his request.
He understood from their gestures and the few words of English he knows that they asked him to give his phone to them. They signaled (and said): “If you don’t give it, we will beat you”. He was forced to unlock his phone and hand it over.
The respondent recounts:
“When I was put in the car I realised that they have many phones and power banks in there. When one of the men took a cigarette from his pocket I saw that he had many euro [bills]. I think they took it from people [on the move] before.”
When he opened his backpack to hand over his personal belongings and gather his things, he was beaten with a baton. The respondent noted that he thinks the men in uniform thought he had contagious disease which is why he was spared further direct physical contact and violence. This procedure took a couple of minutes.
The respondent was brought to a car at around 7 am, parked a few metres away, by two of the uniformed men who treated him harshly. The car was described as a white Nissan Pick-Up with blue “police” written on it and identified as resembling Image 4.
The small trunk – as visible in the Image 4 above, was covered and the respondent was forced to crouch in there. He could not see anything and there was little air.
They drove for more than half an hour until they arrived at a detention site.
He described the site as consisting of a small single-floor building with white and blue walls with a yard with dirt ground and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. The landscape consisted of some trees and a paved road next to the detention site territory. The respondent described the detention site as being about 2 km from a village.
Inside the fence “many vans”, about 10, were parked. Most of them were white and at least two were blue. The respondent noted that it was the kind of van you can open from the back with two big doors but could not remember a specific brand.
Additionally, he illustrates that there were three garbage containers on the territory of which one each was filled with shoes, with clothes like jackets and shirts and one with pants. He stated that he is sure these clothes belonged to other POM and have been forcibly taken from them. There was no flag, sign or writing indicating that the facility was an official detention centre.
Inside the building five men in uniform were present. They were described as wearing “normal” (non-bullet proof), black uniforms with long sleeves and “police” writing on the back. They wore pants “with big pockets” and balaclavas. The respondent was unable to recognize the uniforms from any pictures shown to him but noted that two of the men spoke Arabic and he remembered their voices as also being involved in the pushback he was subjected to later that day as well. He noted that he thinks that these men most probably are third-country nationals who tried to cross the border themselves before and were hired by Greek authorities. He clarified that he heard about similar incidents before which led him to this conclusion.
He was searched and forced to undress, left with a t-shirt and boxers only.
“They [the men] wanted everything from me, this is why they searched me”, he said. His bag, all personal belongings, and shoes, jackets, pants were taken from him and nothing was returned.
After the search, he was put in a single cell at around 8 am. Next to him there was another cell with many other people inside. He stated he was put in a single cell most probably because the men in uniform thought his illness might be contagious and dangerous. The cell was described as very dirty with no windows and a toilet that was “super disgusting” and without water. He had to sit on the ground if he wanted to rest.
He was not offered any medical treatment or water or food. “I asked for clean water because I was so sick and dehydrated but they just said ‘no’”.
At around 4 pm of April 3rd, 2022 the other people were taken out of their cell. The men in uniform at first did not open the respondent’s cell and he was afraid they would forget him in there so he started to scream to be noticed. Subsequently, he was also taken from his cell and told to “come and go with them [the other POM]”.
The group exiting the other cell consisted of 50 – 60 persons, including 4 – 5 women in their 30s and at least two minors. The respondent remembered people being from Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt and Morocco and their ages ranging from 10 to about 40 years old.
The same five men in black uniforms and wearing balaclavas who searched the respondent earlier that day waited outside of the cells and took the POM to the car. While they were passing through, all the POM were beaten with batons. There was also one uniformed man who beat the women. Minors were not beaten but panicked due to the intensity of the situation.
All 50 – 60 POM were put into the trunks of two olive green or khaki military trucks. The respondent did not remember the brank but described them as old and as similar to Image 5 and Image 6 below but clarified that none of these images is identical to the vehicles. He stated that the vehicles were very old and the trunk or trailer of the vehicles was not covered by tarpaulin (like in the images) but by some kind of perforated metal. The trunk measured about 4 x 2 metres.
Image 5: KrAZ-255B – the vehicles looked similar to this one although not identical. The trunk/trailer was not covered by tarpaulin but by some kind of perforated metal.
Image 6: Unimog Mercedes Truck – the vehicles looked similar to this one although not identical. The trunk/trailer was not covered by tarpaulin but by some kind of perforated metal.
After about 5 minutes the vehicles started moving. The POM drove for about 1 – 1.5 hours and the respondent described the driving as “really fast”. He recounts:
“There was nearly no oxygen because it was so crowded. Some of us started knocking on the metal cover from inside because they couldn’t breathe. Sometimes the driver used the brakes suddenly to make people fall on purpose.”
At around 5:30 pm the two vehicles arrived at a spot by the Evros river in the midst of agricultural fields. All POM were taken to the same place. With them, other cars arrived at this spot as well, namely a white old Mercedes van and two Nissan Pick-ups, identified as Greek Police Pick-Up trucks (Image 4). With the white van 5 men wearing the same unidentified “normal” (non-bullet proof), black uniforms with long sleeves and “police” writing on the back and wearing balaclavas arrived. The respondent could not give details about the number of uniformed personnel arriving in the pick-ups but stated they all wore the same uniform.
In total, around 15 men in uniform were present at this pushback point. All of them wore the same uniform as described above, including balaclavas.
Reportedly, nine of them spoke Greek among each other and six spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent and Kurdish. The respondent referred to them as mercenaries and stated they would do anything for money and carried out the “dirty work”. They were the ones who were actively pushing back the POM across the river.
They were only to be distinguished by their language as they wore the exact same uniform as the Greek-speaking men, including weapons they carried in the holster.
The POM were forced to kneel down and sit in rows of four people each. In this humiliating way, they were searched by the Arabic-speaking men and forced to undress, one by one, again. The women and minors were also searched by the men but not undressed. Any personal belongings which had not been taken away from the POM before, had been taken during this incident. The treatment was described as harsh and rude: “When they searched us and found out that someone was hiding something, they beat them. When someone moved or made a sound, they beat them.”
Subsequently, all POM were pushed back over the river with the use of three silver-coloured rubber boats with paddles, similar to the one which the POM used to cross from Turkey to Greece in the first place, which were brought to the pushback site in the white van. The time of the pushback was at sunset, at around 7:30 pm of April 3rd, 2022.
First, the Arabic-speaking men checked the Turkish side for soldiers, then, after discerning that no one was around on the other side of the river, 8 people and two drivers respectively were sent in one boat.
The respondent was sent in the first group with the women and children because he was so sick. Apart from the last boat, all people were taken across the river until they reached Turkish territory. When the last boat was crossing the river the boat drivers spotted Turkish authorities approaching and forced the POM to jump into the water and swim to the Turkish side of the river.
A Turkish military car arrived, staffed with 4 people referred to as “ordinary soldiers” and one “general” (amilitary personnel apparently in charge). These men checked the group and counted them and indicated that they should walk on an unpaved road until they arrived at a village. The military vehicle accompanied the POM for about 1 km until they arrived at this village, which the respondent was unable to identify. The person referred to as “general” contacted the muhtar of the village (the elected head of Turkish villages/communities) who opened the mosque for the POM at around 9 pm. The respondent was unable to give details about the village or the mosque, apart from it being located on a square with a yard and a statue of Atatürk in front of the building. He explained the lack of detail in his memories was due to his very critical physical health condition at this time.
Once in the mosque, the muhtar provided the POM with food boxes, like lunch packages, with a logo of the United Nations, identified as similar to the one in Image 7 by the respondent. They contained two bottles of water, biscuits and canned beans.
The respondent recounts: “Everyone was so tired and thirsty – some of them spent five days in detention in Greek, without food or water”. He himself was still unable to eat or drink anything because he was so sick and would throw up everything he would take in.
Image 7: Logo of the United Nations
The POM stayed in the mosque for about one hour until about 10 pm. Meanwhile, the muhtar had contacted taxi drivers to pick them up. “We were charged for it and they charged us a lot” – according to the respondent, the taxi drivers took advantage of their situation.
The respondent was in a taxi with seven other POM and they drove back to Istanbul for around 3.5 hours. Each person was dropped at their house or a place where they could find money to pay him – 700 Turkish lira each. The respondent was taken to a friend’s house and arrived there very late in the early morning hours of April 4th, 2022.
At no point during the pushback the respondent was provided with medical help – regardless of actively asking for it and being in a critical and life-threatening health condition.
The intention to claim asylum was not expressed.
Once in Istanbul, as his health condition remained critical, he went to a private hospital as his registration status did not allow him to use public health services. He got in contact with Josoor and was referred to another organisation providing medical services and taken to another hospital. He was attested to food poisoning (see Image 8) and provided with medical treatment.
Image 8: Medical document from Istanbul hospital, attesting food poisoning
He got in touch with the Consolidated Rescue Group again which shared a follow up post, as depicted below (Image 9).
Image 9: Follow-up post by Consolidated Rescue Group showing the respondent in a hospital in Turkey (automatic translation)