“It is hard to remember details, I still have nightmares”
This testimony recounts a violent illegal expulsion of a Cuban family who had never set foot in Turkey. The respondent is a 33-year-old Cuban woman, who, along with her family – her 43-year-old husband, 16-year-old son, and 8-year-old daughter – and a close friend who was 37 years of age and was also Cuban, were expelled to Turkey after an traumatising ordeal at the hands of the Greek authorities. The initial apprehension took place in a train station in Thessaloniki, deep into the Greek mainland.
The family of four left Cuba on 24th December 2021. They flew to Moscow, with the intention to work there. They were unaware however that legally, people entering the country on tourist visas are not allowed to work. They then decided to leave Moscow on 16th January 2022. They traveled to Serbia. Upon entrance to Serbia, they faced several problems. The border officials asked for return tickets to Moscow and to Cuba. The respondent remarked that they thought they were asked these questions because the officials thought they would try to stay. They were also asked for financial statements, and PCR Covid tests, among other paperwork. Apparently, the family had everything and they were able to go through it, but it was a hassle. In Serbia, they met their 37-year-old Cuban friend.
From Serbia, the group of five crossed the land border to North Macedonia on 17th January. After crossing the border they traveled half their time by car and half their time by walking until they made it to the Greek border with N. Macedonia. They entered Greece on 18th January 2022.
The transit group arrived in Polykastro at around 11 am on 18th January. In Polykastro, they bought tickets to go to Thessaloniki via bus. Their bus was at about 2 pm that day, and it took around 45 minutes.
From Thessaloniki, they bought train tickets to Athens. This train was scheduled to leave at 6 pm. They boarded the train, and the respondent reported that a steward asked for their passports and seat numbers. He opened their passports and noticed that there was no permit or stamp to come into the country. The steward asked them, in Greek (they used google translate to understand) if they had permits outside of their passports. The Cuban family responded that they did not. They were given their passports back, and then very shortly after, the respondent recalls that five officers turned up. They were wearing dark blue/ black uniforms. She did not recall any insignia. They had their passports removed from their possession here, but were allowed to keep their backpacks.
When they were eventually taken to the police station, they were taken by these officers.
On the train, the officers told the Cuban family that they would be taken to a police station. The respondent explained that her family and their friend asked for asylum through google translate on the phone to the officers. They were told they would be given a paper to allow them to stay for 25 days so they could apply for asylum in the EU. Because the Cuban family did not speak Greek, and the officers did not speak Spanish, the communication was being facilitated through google translate using their phones. At this stage, they still had their backpacks.
The whole ordeal on the train occurred around 6 pm. It was already turning dark. The respondent recalled some messages she sent to her family at 6.23 pm which she believes to be around the time of the apprehension. The back and forth google translation took some minutes.
After this, the group of five was taken directly to a car, which was thought to be a jeep and dark in color. The respondent was not able to remember more. They were loaded into the dark jeep. There were two men in the car, one was from the train.
They were the only ones who were loaded into the car, and they were the only ones taken off the train. The car ride was about 10 minutes in total, it was a very short journey. They arrived at what the respondent referred to as a “police station”.
Here is where they reportedly all had their phones taken from them. As soon as they arrived the “police” ordered the group to switch off their phones and give their phones to them. Five phones were taken in total, the respondent recounted – 1 iPhone, 2 Redmi, and 2 Xiaomi. They were made to wait on a bench. They recall seeing lots of people inside this station, specifically nationalities that were Indian, Palestinian, and Syrian, amongst other people from the “Middle East”. They were not able to identify how many people there were. To communicate with the officers, they used one of the officers’ phones to translate. The Cuban group understood that they were at this “police station” to get the paperwork to allow them to apply for asylum. Apparently, the officers here were “super calm”. In total, they spent about 20 minutes here. The female respondent does not remember exactly how many “officers” were there, she suggested there were perhaps around 10-20 entering and exiting the “station”. They were all wearing uniforms but the respondent was unable to remember what they looked like aside from this.
“It is hard to remember details, I still have nightmares,” remarked the respondent.
After approximately 20 minutes, the respondent and her husband exited the police station. They were not handcuffed. The respondent reported that they were taken away in a car and that it was the same “police officer” who took their passports and phones and who was now sitting next to the driver of the car. The respondent remembered that their phones and passports were transported with them (but in the possession of these “officers”). They were loaded into this car just before 7 pm.
They were driven for approximately 30 minutes. The driving was reportedly very fast. “They were hitting us against the side of the car” remarked the respondent. They were driven on a “normal” paved road, not a dirt road. It was also only them in the car, no other people were taken from the “police station”.
They soon arrived at the second place of detention. The man, identified as an “officer”, who had their passports and phones, handed the items to another man (also identified as an “officer”) at this detention site. They explained it was sort of a “handover” to the man on shift at this place, who was wearing a dark blue uniform. The respondent described that the detention site was very narrow inside. When you go into the building, you walk through the front door. There was a very long passage leading to some offices and rooms inside. There was also a door that led to the cell area, where there were two cells.
The five Cuban group members were put in one of the rooms, which had mattresses on the floor. At this station, there were about five or six “officers” wearing dark blue uniforms. Amongst these officers, there was a female officer who the Cuban group thought was the boss, because of her attitude and everyone was relying on her to do something. The respondent remarked, “this woman is known by the Cuban community [in Turkey, after pushbacks] of people expelled from Greece. They all say she is the boss”.
From this room, two “officers” (included in the five to six previously mentioned) reportedly took the father from the group. When they came to take the father, they had brought the group’s gym bag that they had taken from him. This bag contained a change of clothes and money. A total of 7080€ was inside this bag. These “officers” forcibly searched the Cuban father, and while this happened, the Cuban mother was asked by two other “officers” to leave the room. She described that she was taken to another room where officers wrote down the total amount of money that was taken from the group of five. She was told in the following days she would get it back when she was released. She believed that she was there as a witness and that she would get it back and was a witness to it. However, she did not sign any paper of sorts regarding this.
The Cuban father was searched for what the respondent said was a “long time”, and while searching him, wearing gloves, the officers found 90 € in his pocket. These two officers got very angry with him and they thought he was hiding it. According to the respondent, they forced him to strip and conducted a rigorous body search. They made him squat and jump to see if he was hiding anything. His clothes were returned to him afterwards.
After searching the father, he was forced to give his fingerprints with ink. After this, he was told to wash his hands in a cell (separate from the room), but when he went inside to do this he was then not allowed out of the cell. At that moment, officers came into the room with the rest of the Cuban group and took the Cuban friend. The same ordeal happened to the friend: he was reportedly strip-searched, made to jump and squat, and then detained in the cell along with the father.
Before the mother was taken to be searched, she asked about her husband. The officers explained that he would stay in the cell. At this point, the daughter started yelling and became very distressed. In response to this, the husband was brought back to the room to be with the daughter.
After the friend was taken to the cell (where he was kept), the “officers” came to the mother and took her for a search. The mother explained that she suffers from a hormonal problem where she normally does not get her period, but because of the stress of their ordeal, she was bleeding a lot and needed pads, but the officers did not listen to her request.
The respondent recounted that two officers ordered her to get naked. They were all male. However, the respondent knew her rights and told them they did not have the right to do this to her [in Spanish], and she needed a female officer. The officers said no to her request/ statement. She explained that these two officers violently took the woman and pushed her up against the wall of the room they were in. Then, they forcibly pulled her trousers down, and they saw everything was filled with blood (because of her excessive bleeding). But she stated that these officers made her remove her underwear and put them in the rubbish bin. They then made her squat. In the moment after squatting, they made her lift up her pullover, to just underneath her bra. They then searched her, touching her back and her waist area. Then they searched the upper part of her chest but this part was over her pullover. The ordeal lasted for 20 minutes in total.
She reported that they did not give her any help for her period; they forced her to put her clothes back on, covered in blood, without her underwear. Then, she was returned to the room, where her husband still was.
Then the respondent explained that these two “officers” tried to take the 16-year-old boy to be searched. The respondent and her husband refused and stated because he was a minor they were not allowed to do that. When they refused, the police did not really answer and tried to take him. The couple continued to resist them, and eventually, the police gave up because they put up so much resistance. The 8-year-old girl had her photo taken of her, by “officers”, but she was not searched.
All of this took a total of between one and two hours.
There were two cells in this detention site; in the one where the Cuban friend was, there was also a Russian man and a Serbian man. In the other cell, there was a Pakistani man, a Palestinian man, and another man who they were not sure where he was from but identified him as “Arab” (was later confirmed as Syrian). There was a door opening to the cell area and the cell area was long. There were two cells next to each other but separated by walls. In the first cell, the Russian man started acting aggressively. So the “officers” ended up going inside the cell and gave him a pill. The Cubans were not able to identify what the pill was, but after he took it (consensually/of his own accord), he relaxed.
The people in the cell with the Cuban friend were asking for his nationality, and when he said he was Cuban, they said: “not to worry, everything will be fine. You are Cuban.” He was also offered pills by the people in the cell, as they had reportedly been given a lot of pills. They were dividing them amongst themselves.
The transit group was kept in this detention site until about 10 or 11 am in the morning on 19th January. The respondent reported that they were not allowed to go to the bathroom throughout the whole time they were there. The daughter of the Cuban family had to go pee herself in her trousers – which happened twice. The Cuban family remained alone in their cell. They were not given any food, or medical assistance throughout their time there. However, they had been allowed to keep their backpacks, which contained clothes, a tablet, a laptop, toiletries, and some food.
The group did not see anyone else, nor was anyone else brought into the cells or rooms overnight. The friend also confirmed this as he was in the cell and separated from the rest of the group.
The transit group was removed from the detention site at around 10-11 am in the morning. The respondent explained that she did not have a chance to see the outside of the detention site, as they were transported straight from the facility into a van outside. This van was white in color and described as “big”. Inside the van, it was empty and had “benches”. The respondent identified the van to be the same as in Image 1.
An officer drove the van, which the respondent did not recognize. He was wearing the same dark blue uniform as the officers before, and the same officers who took their passports and belongings brought them to the van.
Only the Syrian man from the cell with the Cuban friend was taken with them (six people in total). This Syrian man was about 30 years old. Even though they did not have a common language, they were able to communicate by miming to each other. He explained that he had already been pushed back in the past and how they should hold on to the 8-year-old daughter tightly to keep her safe because their boat in the river would move a lot.
The drive was long, and it was also a lot rougher and the road they were driving on was “not a good road” nor paved. In total, the Cubans said the drive was at least one hour.
When they stopped, they had arrived at another detention site. The officer who was driving handed their phones and passports to the other two officers who were at this site. These officers opened the phones and took their sim cards as well as their phone cases, and kept them. Amongst these two new officers, the respondent described that one was a woman with red and very curly hair.
They arrived at this third “facility” (detention site) at about 2 pm. When they were taken to the site, these “officers” reportedly cut the shoelaces off everyone’s shoes. The group was ordered to take off their backpacks and leave them in a corner of the building. Here they were not made to take off their coats. This whole ordeal took about 30 minutes in total. The Cuban mother remarked she did not remember how the facility looked as she was very distressed and they were being shuffled around so much and it was confusing.
From here, they were taken back to the van, the same one as before. They were put back into this van with the Syrian man, and there were also two young Indian men – about 21 or 22 years of age. They were brothers.
They were loaded into this van and driven for two more hours – the driving was reportedly very fast and along an asphalt road. The group, the Syrian man and the Indian men were able to communicate through broken English and miming. The Indian men said they knew they would be pushed back somehow, perhaps suggesting that they had been pushed back before. The Indian men explained that they would be taken to the Turkish border and pushed back from there to Turkey. The respondent explained that she had been told that they would be taken back to Serbia, as this is the way they came from, and explained that they would get their passports back (as this is what they were told). “I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on,” explained the respondent.
They could see a bit out of the corner of the van as there was a gap. They remarked that they saw a few tolls as they passed along a main road that they had been driving on.
After around two hours, the van stopped in the middle of the road. They realized that they had traveled further away from where they were before. When they stopped on the road, they realized that they had been stopped by a group of men. These men were referred to by the respondent as “policemen”. They were wearing dark blue uniforms and they were all wearing balaclavas. These men were also reportedly armed. There were about four or five of them.
When the back of the van was opened, they could only see some houses and buildings. They were on a “normal street”. Also, the respondent remembered there was a red cross on a building – she did not know if it was a church or a hospital, but the building had very high walls.
The Cuban group, the Syrian man, and the Indian men stayed in the van. However, there was another van (same type – and white in color), full of people and these people were transferred into their van. The officers shouted at people “go go go!”, forcing people to move very quickly. This lasted about five minutes in total – they were moving people very fast. The people who came into their van were identified as Syrian because they were able to speak Syrian Arabic to the Syrian man who was already in the van with them. They were all men and all about 20-something years of age.
The officers from the other van then switched with the officers previously driving the transit group’s van.
From here, the van doors were shut and they were driven for another approximated two hours. They remarked that they passed about five tolls along the road, seen through the gap in the van. They said it was a highway – driving very fast. They were not able to read any of the signs that were passed as they did not know the Greek alphabet. Also, because they were driving so fast it was difficult to see things they were passing.
Then they stopped, and they had arrived at a fourth facility/detention site. This was at nighttime, they were not able to identify the time. The respondent explained it “seemed like a military facility”. They were unloaded from the van. There was another white van at this site, amongst other vehicles (which were unidentified due to everything happening so fast and it was dark).
The men in the group were ordered to remove their coats but women and children were allowed to keep them on. The people ordering the group to take off coats were dressed in military uniforms and reportedly carrying firearms. There were about four of them, but they could not see well as it was dark and they had their faces covered. “Everything happened so fast”.
The group was loaded into the back of a truck that looked like a military truck. While they were in the back of the truck, “more and more people kept coming”. The respondent explained that in total there were between 40 to 70 people loaded into the truck (including themselves). There were no more children brought into the truck, most of the people were men, apart from one other woman. The group of Cubans were the only Cubans. Most of the people were young. There were a few older people, around the ages of 40-50 years old. The youngest in the group was around 20 years old.
“People were on the floor and on top of each other” explained the respondent; there was not enough room in the van for all of them to fit.
One man, who was transported from the other white van to the truck, approached the pile of coats created by all the men who were forced to take them off. He was so cold, and he reached for a coat and was pushed back by some of the men wearing military uniforms, away from the pile. The respondent described that he was then forcibly pushed onto the truck with the rest of the people. They did not witness this man being beaten, but they could see he had been stripped of his clothes and was only in his shorts.
All of this happened very fast, the men in military clothing were shouting “go go go!” to people to get into the truck.
From here, they were driven for about one hour in the truck. The driving was described as “very fast” and “side to side” meaning that people were hitting each other and the sides of the truck.
“It was so aggressive. We were falling on top of each other, as there was nothing to hold on to. People laid down as otherwise, they would fall”, explained the respondent. The Cuban family was adamant that it was a dirt road they were driving on, as they could feel it. They felt as if they were driving up a hill, describing it as a “mountain”.
The van eventually came to a halt. It was around 7-8 pm. The truck door opened, and they were immediately ordered to get out. They realized that they were right by the riverside. This river is the Evros/Meriç River, in the Evros region of Greece. They were not able to see much as it was dark, but described their surroundings as being in the “mountains”.
There were five officers who came in the military truck with them, from the last place of detention. These officers were wearing blue trousers, and blue pullovers and they did not have their faces covered.
Everyone – the group of 40-70 people – was made to kneel down on the grass. The female respondent said that she could see five people dressed in dark blue uniforms, almost black in color, inflating boats. These boats were already sitting near the water’s edge when they arrived, they did not see them being unloaded and taken to the river’s edge. These people were not wearing balaclavas. They remarked that the uniforms were similar to the ones identified as the Greek border police uniforms. There were two boats that could fit about seven people comfortably. They were all made to kneel down in rows in front of the boats.
They were loaded onto the boats in groups of five people. There was a rope that was tied from one side of the river (Greek side, where they were) to the other side (the Turkish side). The boats were moving a lot because the current was very strong. The Cubans remembered seeing people being thrown off the boat when the boat moved too much when people were being taken across. “These people were swallowed by the river,” explained the respondent. They do not remember how many people were thrown overboard into the river, but they believe it was more than 10 people. “We don’t know what happened to them. They disappeared into the river” explained the respondent.
Before the Cubans crossed, one officer reportedly approached them and asked them where they were from. They replied “Cuba”. And this officer said “Ah Cuba”. This officer spoke English to them. He seemed surprised that they were from Cuba. He reportedly said “what we are doing is an abuse” and continued saying something like “people cross back all the time and they have to do this often”. The Cubans explained that he seemed surprised when speaking to them, but was speaking frankly and was not sad about it.
They waited for one to two hours in total before all the other group members had crossed. The Cubans were the last ones from the group to cross. They were divided into two boats, with the family of four in one boat, and then Cuban friends of the family in the other boat with other people. No one was thrown overboard from the family’s boat. In the friend’s boat, the men pulling the boat across the river did reportedly throw someone overboard. “People would try to scream but they were not given time,” explained the Cuban friend. “They would scream because they were scared of sinking”.
Two of the men dressed in military clothing pulled the boats across the river. The husband of the Cuban family was asked to lie down in the boat and was told not to move his head. The 16-year-old Cuban son helped to pull the boat with the rope, alongside the officers. The respondent explained that her son helped because he didn’t want anyone to get thrown into the water.
It took about 15 minutes to cross the river, it was about 100 meters wide at the point they were crossing. When they reached the other side, they were met by the two Indian men who had been part of their group. The Indians somehow explained about Istanbul and asked if they wanted to go. The Cuban family and friend said yes. A group of people who had crossed with them told/signaled to them to follow them. They followed the group. There was a lot of mud, and it slowed them down and the Cubans ended up losing the other members in the darkness. But, the two Indians stayed with them and helped guide them.
The transit group got lost. They ended up crossing another river, which wasn’t like the first river they had crossed. It was more like a “channel”, that looked manmade. This channel was very deep. The father (who is 1.9m in height) had the water level rising to his chest. He carried his daughter on his back. He was able to cross the river by walking but found himself sinking into the riverbed because of the mud. After they crossed this channel, they reached an area that looked a bit like a swamp. There were several channels in this swamp area, but they only crossed one.
They spent hours walking in circles, but very far away they could see the lights of a city. While they continued to walk, the Cuban friend fell into the swamp. Because there was so much mud, he lost his shoes when they were pulling him out. The mud they were walking in generally arrived at their knees. They compared the swamp to what could have been a rice field of sorts.
From here they walked for a couple more hours. They got very tired and found a place they could rest, on the side of a forest. “It was -13 degrees [celcius]” remarked the respondent. When they stopped and rested, they could not feel their body parts anymore.
The little 8-year-old girl said to her parents “please stand up, I don’t want to die here. Please stand up and find the exit”. They were all completely wet, freezing, and covered in mud at this time. “If we stayed we probably would have died” explained the respondent.
They got up and moved. They found a road, maybe at 1-2 am on the morning of 20th January. They were being followed by wild/stray dogs on the road, and there were no houses or anything nearby. They continued walking next to the road, it was a dirt road. They eventually met a military truck along that road. The mother identified the people inside the truck as “Turkish border guards”. There were four of them, wearing camouflage army clothes. These men were reportedly armed.
These “Turkish border guards” were “very very nice”, explained the respondent. They gave them food, water, and some sweets to the 8-year-old girl. They explained that the transit group should follow the small street ahead and they would find a taxi. At this moment they were informed that they were in a village on the border with Greece, on the Turkish side. They were told they were very close to where the official border crossing is, which was identified at Kipi – Ipsala.
These border guards called a taxi for them, and they walked for 10 minutes and then the taxi came. At this point, the Cuban group split from the two Indian men. It took them four hours to reach Istanbul from here via taxi. They did not pay for the taxi, but the respondent gave one of her gold necklaces as payment.
The pushback location was identified, using google maps, as very close to Poros, across the Evros river, and they had walked across and through the Meriç river on the Turkish side, and passed close to the villages Yenikarpuzlu and Paşaköy on their way up to Ipsala, where they were close to the Kipi-Ispala border crossing.