On Friday, the 17th of December 2021 close to 7:30am, a transit group of seven men, mostly from the Pashtun region of Pakistan except for one man from Afghanistan was apprehended by Croatian authorities at the city Zagreb’s main bus station, Autobusni Kolodvor Zagreb.
The group had started their transit attempt from the outskirts of the Bosnian city of Bihać, in total walking for about seven days of what the respondent said was a lot of rain before reaching the Croatian capital from where they were planning to take the bus at 7:30am to the city of Rijeka close to the Slovenian border to continue their transit towards Italy. Just before boarding, when the 25 year-old respondent was already inside the open area of the station with another man of the group, the other five already being 20 to 30 meters further inside at the platforms – so reportedly, the group wouldn’t appear as too big – having been approached first by the men, when the two of them were also stopped by two men in civilian clothing.
“[…] but during that time, the private police – civil – police came, they had no uniform anything else, and told us ‘Hello guys, how are you?’ I said ‘We’re pretty good, thank you, how are you?’ – I had already changed my pronunciation [imitating an English accent], so they wouldn’t know we’re also migrants. But even they asked me – me and my friend were in the back, and the other five were already forward – so when the police caught them, my friends were looking at me like this. So very quickly the police doubted, that I was also with these friends. They asked me ‘Where are you from?’ I said from the UK. Even my friend called to me ‘Del-tarasha!’ [meaning ‘Come here’ in Pashto]. So they said ‘Do you have documents? I want to check you because I have doubts.’”
The respondent said he then pretended to search for his passport, nervously laughing, as the officers were also laughing; then admitting he was not from the UK. When the officers then asked where he was from and what he was doing here, he related he told the officers he was from the Afghani, not the Pakistani side of the Pashtun region he was from, as this would increase his chances for asylum. The officers also flashed their silver metal badges hanging around their necks on a long necklace chain at them, to show they were Croatian police forces:
“…but they have the metal card in here [pretending to reach to his chest under the jacket], they’re wearing it inside. When they talked to me they went like this [gesturing to take it out]. It was gold-like and silver metal, it was circular and the writing was ‘H R’, Hrvatska […] they’re wearing it like a necklace, two men.”
The respondent also related the other bystanders inside the bus station were staring at them.
“Everybody looked at us, everybody. But nobody can complain, say ‘Why you caught these people?’”
After being apprehended, the group then had to wait around 30 minutes for eight additional Croatian officers, seven male and one female, all wearing the same uniforms, reportedly consisting of black shoes and blue pants and jackets having written ‘Policija’ in white on them. These forces had arrived in one white van “for the migrants to sit inside”, and one white police car which the respondent said resembled a model similar to a Renault Mégane, meaning a small five-door hatchback car. They also confiscated the transit group’s phones. The two men in civilian clothing then reportedly explained to the new officers what had happened before. The respondent mentioned that retelling the story of how the group was caught the officers were laughing with each other, as they had before with the respondent.
The group was then driven by the newly arrived officers for about 10 minutes to a local Zagreb police station which the respondent described as an entry, resembling a white container, leading into a bigger, white concrete building. The back of the van in which the transit group was placed on silver metal seats had no windows. Arriving at the station, the group was ensuingly searched by the authorities.
“There they checked our whole body, […] jackets, trousers, underwear, everything. They said ‘Do you have money, you can put it in here. Do you have phones, put them on the table! Do you have any weapons?’”
For the next two hours all seven of the group were interviewed together in one small room with a concrete bench and white tile walls, which the respondent described as just about two meters wide and three meters long, by one male and one female officer in blue uniforms, reportedly also having the letters ‘H’ and ‘R’, as the respondent said for ‘Hrvatska’, on them. It might be possible that the respondent switched the order of the letters by accident, perhaps as his native languages Pashtu and Urdu are read the opposite way from right to left, and that he was referring to the ‘RH’ flag on Croatian uniforms, standing for ‘Republika Hrvatska’. Pictures of each of the group, holding a piece of paper with a different number each written on it, were also taken without asking for permission.
“The blue police said ‘Wait here’, they were calling one more person to the next room, to make an interview. You know ‘What is your name, what is your father’s name, what are you doing, where are you from, how long have you been here, how many days have you walked, how many days until you reached Zagreb, where are you going, what is your plan, where do you want to go, why did you cross the border?…’ Like this, blablabla. They said ‘Sign here, everybody sign here with their signature.’ Just one page, each person one signature. […] Three kinds of pages, one is Urdu, the Pakistani language, one is Pashtu, and one is in English. We had to fill in English. […] Name, surname, father’s name, mother’s name, city, village city, occupation, country name, and the signature. They took a picture, two times.”
The respondent related he also filled out the personal information for the others of the group in English, as this saved the officers a lot of time, the rest of the group did not understand the Other than that, no translator was present, also since the respondent spoke almost fluent English and translated himself to the rest of the group. The transit group was then left in the same small room for detention and told to wait for their decision, and brought some fish and yoghurt to eat for lunch as well as dinner.
“When they finished the interview, they said that ‘You need to wait here, in the room. We have to take a decision about you.’ And they brought some food.”
The respondent told that he had a long conversation with one of the female officers of the station, which he specifically asked again to apply as refugees for asylum in the European union as he explained he had already been pushed back illegally to Bosnia several times by Croatian forces and was afraid this would happen again. The officer reportedly assured him this would not happen to him again.
“I talked with one girl, she was an officer, I said ‘I’m sorry, we don’t want stay, we want asyl, asylum in here. Please, kindly, don’t deport, don’t push us back to Bosnia. We’re facing a very complicated life in here, because we don’t want to stay anymore in Bosnia, and we walked for seven days, facing a lot of difficulties on the way.’ So she said, don’t worry, nobody will deport you’, she was an officer! ‘We give you asylum here, we can talk to the night shift. When they’re coming, you can talk to them.’ So we were waiting seven, eight hours in the police station.”
The respondent told this officer also asked him how many languages he spoke, he answered four: Pashto, Urdu, English and Turkish. “She was laughing. ‘Then why do you follow this way?’ I said because it is my compulsion, there is no other way.” According to the respondent, the woman then said she would do something for him, but only him, not the others of the group, as they were in need of people like him who could translate well. The respondent related she then later came back another time with another officer, apparently friends with her, and opened the door of the cell to look inside, talking to them and asking again why he had come this way, that there was no sense trying to board a bus at the public station without any documents. “’Why did you come to the main city, to Zagreb?’ [Respondent laughing] I told her ‘Because we’re also tourists, you know.” He said the officer was laughing saying they were crazy, and that she would come back another time, which, however, did not happen.
The respondent also related he had strong bladder pain because he needed to go to the toilet, and in spite of their continuous calls still had to wait around up to 40 minutes, some people one to two hours, to then be escorted to the toilet. Then toilet itself, according to the respondent, had no running water and was covered in a strong smell which the respondent said felt sickening.
“A small room, just two meters, three meter long, for seven people. There was no more capacity. Seven hours in the room, we were not comfortable and had a lot of tension, we called again and again, ‘Please let us go to the toilet’, like this and this. They told us just to be waiting, very angry sometimes, ‘What the hell is going on?!’, ‘Shut up!’, ‘Stop! We come again, just wait!’ And the toilet system was poor, so poor, there were no water facilities inside, and a big smell.”
After seven and a half to eight hours of detention in total at the police station, the group was then at around 8pm taken out of the room to be sent to what the officers said would be a camp for asylum seekers in a white van in a drive that the respondent recalled lasted between four to five hours.
“They took us out of the room, they told us ‘We will send you to the camp.’ So we were in the van for four hours. After four hours they opened the van door, and said ‘This is the camp, bye bye.’ But it was the Lipa border.”
The respondent said the van was driven by two male officers whose uniforms consisted of light gray longsleeve shirts, tucked inside the belts, and black pants. He related they only saw the men like this inside the front of the van it was warm by the heating, and he suspected they left their jackets in the car when they went out. At the border, a forest side along the green border presumably around two kilometers or more west of the Bosnian town of Lohovo, one female and one male officer were already awaiting the group when they arrived at what the respondent remembered as between midnight and 1am at the border, a police dog with them which the respondent described as a German shepherd. These officers had arrived in another white police car which the respondent recalled also resembled a Renault Mégane, with a red and blue siren on the roof of the vehicle. When asked further about the writing on their uniforms the respondent related:
“I couldn’t see that. Because if I look again, and again, and again, they mind it ‘Why you look at us? Eyes down in here’, like this. […] They have no feelings.”
In between the officers, however, the respondent also mentioned one of the male officers was making kisses in the air to his female colleague, who returned the signs. The officers were carrying firearms in their holsters – the respondent described them from his experiences of seeing weapons in the conflict zone of his home as looking like Stoeger handguns – and reportedly also had blue police batons with them, waving them in the air in what the respondent perceived as a threat.
“They put it in their hand, and put it like this [waving in the air] Because they can’t hit us, but they hold it in their hand. And they said to me ‘Don’t make a noise, be silent and go!’ Because there is also Bosnian police.”
After getting out of van the respondent related the two male officers actively pushing them back walked with them for two to three minutes to the border, then pointing the flashlight into Bosnia and laughing, saying this was their camp – presumably sarcastically meaning the Bosnian Lipa Migration Camp, more than 20 kilometers southeast of the borders site, also reportedly telling them to “Try again”. Still, the respondent seemed about the execution of the pushback, recalling previous transit attempts in which their money and belongings had been stolen and they were beaten harshly by the Croatian forces.
“This the first time. Because before, the police behavior, their attitude was very rough. Five times, this is my sixth time. First time that they give us food, first time they give us back our money, first time they gave us back our mobile phones and everything.”
On the way back into Bosnia, the respondent stressed that it was still raining, and that the earth at the pushback site as well as the large area of forest and fields they had to cross further on, was full of mud from the continuing rain, which he said they could barely walk through.
“Just a lot of mud. It had rained too much, and the mud was so wet, we weren’t comfortable there, and it was really cold. [When asked about houses nearby] No, no houses for so far, we only reached a house one hour later. One hour later we saw a village with houses and everything else.”
The respondent told the group remembered the way back as many of the group had been pushed back to there several times before already. After around one and a half hours the 25 year-old man said they reached again the main M5 road leading back to Bihać. After another three and a half, in total five hours, the transit group reached again their make-shift camp in the fields on the outskirts of Bihać.