At nearly midnight on December the 15th, the respondent – a 23-year-old South Sudanese man – and 69 other people on the move (POM) were pushed back from Greece to Turkey. The respondent confirmed that the likely point of pushback was Lavara, Greece to Karayusuflu, Turkey. Six women and 10 minors were involved.
Two days prior, the respondent and one other 37-year-old travel companion arrived in Edirne. Following a day’s rest and preparation, the two South Sudanese men headed towards the Turkish/Greek border, landing on Greek soil at around 23:00 on the 14th. The two walked for 30 KMs through the forest to the Greek/Bulgarian border. They continued through the day and night taking only five-minute rests. On the 15th, their route was obstructed by a reportedly impassable river near Kyprinos. Deviating from the intended path, the men found themselves in agricultural land. Once reaching the border fence, markings suggested that the area was restricted to military personnel, which was incentive enough for the pair to find another route across. Yet, their chance to cross into Bulgaria was thwarted by an unexpected arrival of Greek border police.
At around 18:00 two cars reportedly approached the men from different fronts. Once stopped, two police officers got out of a white-blue Skoda (see Image 1) and three military officers out of a camouflage military vehicle (see Image 2). The three military personnel reportedly carried FN FALs (see Image 3) and wore camouflage uniforms with Greek flags (see Image 4). The two police officers wore all blue uniforms (see Image 5), including a Greek flag on their shoulders (see Image 6). Addressing the men in English, the two officers asked where the two POM were from and to describe their crossing point into Greece. At the officer’s request, papers were handed over and phones unlocked. Only their IDs were returned. At this point, the respondent told one of the officers that he wanted asylum, to which the officer responded, “Yes, yes…sure.” The two men sat on the ground, waiting for approximately 30 minutes before another vehicle arrived (see Image 7). The two men were then loaded into the trunk of the unmarked, white van. Inside, the respondent found three other Moroccan men aged 23 to 25 years old – one of whom told the respondent that he had been caught near Vyssa, Greece. Once loaded into the van, the five men were unknowingly driven for approximately one hour to a Greek detention site. The time was around 19:00.
For around one hour, the five POM were driven initially along paved roads then clearly unpaved as they reached their next destination. When the trunk doors were opened, the respondent immediately saw a corridor. As the men spilled out of the trunk, one officer reportedly hit each of them with a plastic baton, demanding that they move faster into the adjoining small room. Inside the building, the respondent met five new officers, each of whom wore an olive green uniform with ‘police’ written on their chests (see Image 8) The physical space was aging with an old, dirty interior. Two of the officers then forced the five men to strip before the officers searched them from head to toe. When finished, the officers returned only their shoes, shirts, and trousers, demanding the men to get dressed. With no translators present, the officer’s words were completely missed by two of the men who spoke no English. The officers began beating all five men with plastic batons – focusing their blows on the two men who spoke no English.
“The Algerian guy with us…he didn’t understand English. The officer kept punching him in his face until he started bleeding,”
After the beating subsided, the officers herded the men into a tiny cell. As they were swept from one room to another, the respondent reported that: “One of the officers told me ‘I will sell your passport’ and hit me with the baton.” The time was approximately 20:30.
The respondent described the cell as no larger than four by five meters with a dirty, coral-coloured ground. There were two bunk bed frames and a toilet. Inside the cell, he met around 69 other POM reportedly aged four to 60 years old from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Morocco, and Algeria. Among them were six women and 10 minors. One of the elderly women shared with the respondent that she was beaten earlier by one of the officers after she refused to let him search her. He purportedly responded to the refusal by beating her with a branch.
At around 22:30 the 70 POM were released from the cell by two officers dressed in black with a distinct, blue armband (see Image 9). Outside the cell, he met approximately 13 additional officers, seven of whom were wearing olive-green uniforms (see Image 8) and six dressed in civilian clothing. All officers wore balaclavas. In the front of the detention site, the respondent found two vans – one red Ford (see Image 10) and one white Mercedes van (see Image 7). The officers repeatedly hit the men and the minors as they loaded into the vans, screaming and cursing at them in English. At this point, no other language was spoken either to the POM or among the officers than English. Once inside the trunk of the van, the respondent counted approximately 40 people, with the remaining 30 having been piled into the second vehicle. The trunk was no larger than two by four meters.
For around 20 minutes the respondent and around 69 others were driven from the detention site to the Evros/Meriç River. Through a small hole in the trunk, the respondent could see only a few lights on the road as the driver moved from paved to unpaved roads. He described further that “the van was driving too fast….it [even] drifted at one point and we all flipped inside the van. We thought the van was also going to flip.” When the van finally stopped, all 70 people were unloaded and told to stand in a line. In front of them stood 12 officers: three wore camouflage uniforms with Greek flags on the shoulders (see Image 4), four dressed in all black (see Image 8), and five wore only civilian clothing. Two of the men in the black uniforms were the same as those at the detention site. Excluding the three in military uniforms, all officers wore balaclavas. Those in camouflage carried M4 Carbines (see Image 11) and reportedly spoke Turkish with the officers wearing civilian clothing. Once in line, the officers in civilian clothing began beating everyone in the group – including the women and minors.
Each POM was again asked to confirm their country of origin then were searched. No female officers were present. All 70 people were then rounded up and told to get in the small grey and white plastic boat nearby. Along with two of the officers dressed in civilian clothing, the respondent and eight other additional male and female POM climbed into the boat. Steering the plastic dinghy only with paddles, the two officers drove the group until the middle of the river, at which point every person was told to jump. While in the boat, the two officers dressed in civilian clothing reportedly addressed the group in Arabic. After wading through the freezing water reaching nearly their chests, the respondent and the 69 other POM landed back on Turkish soil. Cold and exhausted, he made the 13-hour journey by foot back to Edirne.
At no point during his captivity was the respondent offered food, water, or medical support.