The respondent is a 47-year-old male from Syria who was travelling in a group of 34 people consisting of Syrians and Iraqis. Among them there were 3 women and 7 minors. Four of them were between 5 – 9 years old while three of them were between 10 – 17 years old.
On December 13, 2021 at around 10 pm the group started their journey from Edirne to the Bulgarian border by a 40 minute drive on mostly unpaved roads in a van and by a 30 minute footwalk afterwards. Close to a river at the Turkish-Bulgarian border fence the group waited while hiding between the reed in the water for approximately three hours. After that the POM crossed the river and climbed a small hill and crossed into Bulgarian territory through a hole in the border fence their smuggler, who had accompanied the group until this point, had previously cut.
At around 2 am of December 14, 2021 the 34 POM, including one road guide, crawled through the hole in the fence and started running. The respondent explained that the area had many unpaved roads used by Bulgarian border police which patrol the border. He noticed cameras which he referred to as “night vision cameras” mounted every 3 meters on top of the 5 meters high, barbed border fence.
After gathering again after 20 – 30 minutes of waiting for everyone to arrive, the group started to walk fastly through the mountains in order to not be noticed. The POM walked about 8 km continuously in 4 hours. “No one can walk on paved roads in Bulgaria. We were even afraid every time we found unpaved roads on our way” which is why they walked between trees in the mountain forest on slippery and wet ground. Their envisaged destination was a meeting point close to a village which the respondents friend identified as Lesovo, Bulgaria.
Their smuggler told them that after the 10 km walk to this place they would be picked up and driven to Sofia. The respondent didn’t know about further details how the transport of 34 people at once should be organized: “I don’t know – that was the deal”.
The group never got to the envisaged meeting point because they were intercepted on their way when they had to cross an empty big open area without trees. Suddenly the lights of two cars flashed and the road guide contested “That’s it, they got us”.
The cars approached the group at around 6 am on December 14th, 2021 and were parked in front and behind the group. The seven officers who left the cars started screaming at the POM, threatened them with guns, and continuously kicked and beat all members of the group for about 15 minutes. Children were crying and although the respondent couldn’t see whether women were physically assaulted as well, he witnessed how minors were kicked in front of his eyes. The beating and kicking was random, in all parts of the body.
Three of the seven officers were wearing sage green uniforms with “police” written on their backs, identified as Bulgarian border police uniforms and carrying the “small police guns” identified as Beretta M9. The remaining four officers were identified as Bulgarian soldiers by their green camouflage uniforms with the Bulgarian flag. The respondent recognized the pictures below.
The vehicles used were a black land rover with ”police” written in the front, as used by the Bulgarian border police, and a green old military jeep, which the respondent identified as a Merced-Benz G-Class Armoured jeep. This vehicle is used by the Bulgarian army.
After the initial physical assault on of officers identified ad Bulgarian border police took pictures of the POM all together with his phone and started to ask questions in Turkish and English. The officers spoke Bulgarian amongst them. One of the minors was forced to gather their belongings and continuously kicked in order to do this faster. After that, he was beaten with a baton and forced to sit down again.
The group was taken away all their personal belongings and had to put their phones and money in a separate black bag which afterwards was put in the black Bulgarian border police land rover. The respondent had about 150 Euros and estimates that the officers took about 1700 Euros from the whole group. After that the group was searched and forced to undress except for their underwear one by one. Although the women were not forced to undress they were searched by male officers and touched in their sensitive areas. The minors also had to remove their clothes. This took about 40 minutes.
“They were searching every part of our clothes like they were digging for gold and we were freezing from the cold weather”.
The officers took the money, phones, power banks and shoes, and food and water that they were carrying. Only pants and shirts were returned, the rest was stolen. This took place in the early morning around 7 am.
Following that a big, olive green military truck arrived and the POM were hit with batons by the officers in order to get in the trunk of the car quickly. The respondent recognized the vehicle as a ZIL-131 as pictured below.
All 34 people were loaded into the 2 x 3 metre trunk of the truck and the group was having a hard time breathing inside the narrow and dark space. Inside the truck were two officers wearing Bulgarian army uniforms. They drove on unpaved roads for approximately 3 hours in a reckless way.
“They kept moving around and we really started breathing hard. We were locked inside like we are chicken. […] We felt at some moment that the truck was about to flip and fall. We were so scared!”.
At the point of arrival at the border fence, they only met the Bulgarian border police officers in the black land rover. One of them opened a door in the fence, as pictured below, and one by one the POM were pushed back to Turkish territory between 10 and 11 am on December 14, 2021. The area around the location of pushback was dominated by forests and mountains.
Except for the minors, all POM were barefoot. “We walked in the middle of the forest and we really didn’t know where we were. We were hungry and thirsty.” They walked for almost 4 hours until they arrived at the small village Avcilar where they asked for water and food and were provided help by a local. By using a smartphone the POM could contact a friend via facebook who called the smuggler. He sent two vans which arrived after 4 more hours and the group went partly back to Edirne, partly to Istanbul.
The desire to ask for asylum was expressed when the officers first encountered the group. No water, food, or medical assistance was provided.
“They were about to break our heads with the baton. Do you think they would care about our health?”
No fingerprints and only collective photos were taken before the group was searched.