It was the seventh pushback from Bulgaria he experienced.
The respondent is a 38-year-old male Syrian. He travelled in a transit group consisting of 11 Syrian POM, including a 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old-boy, and a guide. The age range of the group was 6 to 40 years old.
The respondent noted that this time was his seventh try to cross and that they had bought a cell phone to give to the path guide. All other members of the group had their phones taken in the last pushback they experienced from Bulgaria to Turkey.
At around 6 pm on January 30, 2021 the group got a call from their smuggler to get ready to be picked up one hour later. According to the deal they had made with him they were supposed to get to the city of Elhovo, Bulgaria and to be picked up to be brought to Sofia. Each member of the transit group paid around 3000€ for this.
They were picked up from Edirne, Turkey with a van and drove for around 40 minutes on unpaved roads to a place close to the border at around 7:45 pm where they were dropped. The smuggler and the van left.
The respondent and his transit group continued in a group of 13, including the path guide, from this first point by walking for approximately 1.5 hours. They walked through landscapes with mountains and forests and dried rivers and ‘muddy’ terrain which made it hard to walk as the ground was slippery and ‘the mountains were high’. When they arrived at the border close to the village of Hamzabeyli, the group waited in hiding for 15 minutes, to check for any patrolling in the border area, until the path guide cut a hole in the fence. The border was described as a fence with barbed wire from all sides, located in a forest area. The whole group crossed into Bulgarian territory at around 9 pm.
After that they walked for approximately seven hours, resting only once in a while for 15 minutes. The respondent recounts that it was raining and that it was hard to walk through the mountains and that they lost their path several times as the path guide didn’t know the way well and couldn’t use the maps. They got close to Melnica which they thought to be the point where they were supposed to be picked up from (Elhovo). The path guide figured out they were at the wrong place and that the group must move on but as it was already in the morning, at around 7 am of January 31, 2022, and the sun was rising, the group decided to rest until the sunset in the hiding in order to not be seen.
At 4 pm of the same day the transit group continued their journey by walking close to highway number 7 which eventually leads to Elhovo. After two hours the guide’s phone broke eventually: “We tried to find a way to get to Elhovo and the guide didn’t know anything about the road he kept moving on and we kept walking in a circle”.
When it got dark again, after approximately 8 hours of walking, the group found itself almost lost in the middle of mountains. At some point they saw the lights of a village and they approached it. This was at around 1 am of February 1, 2022. The respondent didn’t know the name of the village but stated that it was the first village after Melnica, possibly Granitovo, but this information could not be confirmed by the respondent.
“It was raining, we couldn’t walk more and we were lost. We did hide somewhere in the forest just to cover from the rain”.
The transit group rested for approximately 3 hours close to the village and then decided to continue their journey by walking closer to the main road (highway no. 7) in order to find orientation through road signs to get to their point of destination (Elhovo). After walking closer to the road for approx. 2 hours they saw a black land rover with “border police” written on it, coming towards them. The car was identified by the picture below.
The transit group tried to hide in a small forest close to a bridge but they were already noticed and chased by the people in the car. Eventually the car parked on the road about 500 meters away. Four men in black plain uniforms, without any logos, writings or insignia but wearing blue armbands and wearing balaclavas left the car. This description resembles the uniform of Frontex officials as depicted below.
Since the uniformed men first didn’t take any action and just stood on the road for approximately 10 minutes the group thought they managed to hide successfully, when suddenly two other cars arrived.
One car was an old green jeep car which was described as similar to Bulgarian Police jeeps, as depicted below.
The other car was a white Toyota Hilux, as depicted below, just white instead of black. It was described as “a totally civilian car”.
Toyota Hilux – The respondent clarified that the car looked like this, just white instead of black.
The two arriving cars parked behind the group of POM and therefore they found themselves surrounded and trapped. In each car there were 4 men. The men in the car identified as Bulgarian Police Jeep wore Sacramento green uniforms with “border police” writing on it, similar to the uniforms worn by Bulgarian border police. The men in the Toyota Hilux car also wore black uniforms without any writing, insignias or logos and wore balaclava. They were carrying guns identified as AR-M9F Assault Rifles and recognized by the respondent by the picture below.
The men in uniform started to approach the transit group and screamed, one of them yelled “Out!” and the group left their spot of hiding with their hands in the air. The uniformed men didn’t speak to the POM but immediately started to beat and kick them and to punch them in the face. They used wood batons and bare kicking and punching. The assault lasted for at least 15 minutes.
The respondent recounted: “We were screaming of pain and they beat us hard and harder with all the hatred they have in their heart”
The pictures below show bruises on the respondent that are a result of these beatings.
Bruises caused by violent assaults perpetrated by authorities at the border.
After that, the uniformed men repeatedly asked the transit group for phones and money in English. Among themselves, the uniformed men spoke Bulgarian. Two of the men in black uniforms and wearing balaclavas wore a red armband. They beat the whole group with wooden batons and only stopped when they told them that the path guide carried a phone.
Three of the men, two of them wearing plain black uniforms and one wearing a Sacramento green uniform beat the guide for 30 minutes with punching, kicking and wooden batons until he lost consciousness. The respondent noted that the children and their father were not beaten but witnessed the scenario.
Subsequently, they were forced to undress completely, “[they] were totally naked in the cold weather” and searched one by one. Their clothes were searched and only pants and shirts were returned.
Shoes, jackets and everything found in the clothes, including the guide’s phone, the minor’s medicine and any other personal belongings, were stolen. This took about 1.5 hours.
After that, all 13 POM, including the two minors, were loaded in the 2 x 2 meters sized trunk of the Toyota Hilux. When being asked whether he was able to breath properly in there the respondent replied:
“Imagine 13 people loaded in a trunk which can at maximum afford space for two people… We really couldn’t breathe properly. Even the kids – one of them was sick already. He is asthmatic and they took also their medicine from them and didn’t give back anything!”
They drove for approximately 30 minutes. The first 10 minutes were on paved roads while the rest was on unpaved roads. The driving was described as “too fast” and the transit group could feel the pitfalls on the road.
They arrived at the border and first were not let out from the trunk. The respondent assumes that the men in uniforms gathered tree branches during that time because when they were released from the trunk, the transit group had to gather and was beaten with branches for approx. 5 minutes all over their bodies. He states that the minors and their father were not beaten but witnessed the scenario and “were so scared and crying”.
Only the Toyota Hilux and the green old jeep, identified as Bulgarian police jeep (see above) arrived at the border.
The respondent recounts: when one of the men wearing black uniforms and balaclavas asked the group “Why Bulgaria?” they replied “Camp, camp”.
“He started beating us more and more without mercy and we were begging him, ‘sir please!’ but he never cared”.
They were beaten with branches and the assault lasted for about 10 minutes.
After that, the uniformed men opened a 2 x 1 meter-sized door in the border fence and pushed the whole transit group back to Turkey.
After that the transit group started to walk barefoot, as their shoes had been taken earlier, for about 3 hours until they arrived at the village of Küçüköğünlü. They asked citizens for help and one member of the group spoke Turkish so they were able to communicate but he said: “they don’t want to help us. They don’t want problems!” so the group continued walking for 8 hours on unpaved roads until they reached Edirne.
When being asked whether food, water or medical assistance was provided the respondent replied that “they never do”.