The respondent, a 30-year-old Syrian man, was pushed back with 13 others from Golyam Dervent, Bulgaria to Doğanköy,Turkey on January 27, 2022. This was the 10th time he was a victim of an illegal pushback, having been previously pushed back from Greece three times and Bulgaria six times.
On January 26, the respondent and 13 other Syrian males between the ages of 13 and 39 years old, including three unaccompanied minors (aged 13, 14, and 17), left Edirne around 7 pm. A smuggler took them to the border fence between Bulgaria and Turkey, close to Hamzabeyli. They arrived around 8 pm and the respondent recalled seeing barbed wire on both sides of the tall fence and an unpaved road on the Bulgarian side, and said there were “cameras planted everywhere.” At around 11 pm they crossed to Bulgaria.
Once on Bulgarian soil, the group ran for 10 minutes and then slowed down and walked for almost eight hours, occasionally taking five-minute breaks along the way. The respondent said they walked “between the mountains and the forest,” adding that “it was hard ground and cold and muddy ground.” They continued walking until 7 am, when they arrived at a spot near Elhovo where the smuggler had arranged for a car to pick them up and bring them to Sofia. They hid in the forest near the main road for an hour, at which point the smuggler told the guide to take them to a different pickup point as the driver wasn’t able to get to them.
They walked for another six or so kilometers in the woods. The respondent said, “We couldn’t walk on the paved roads. It’s dangerous and we could be seen and caught.” At 10 am, they arrived at the new meeting point, which was near to a village called Pchela. They hid in the woods, about 500 meters from a dirt road, while they waited for the driver to arrive. The guide struggled to contact the smuggler and told the group they would have to keep hiding until nighttime while they waited for the smuggler to call them. They were there for about one hour, and then, the respondent recounted:
“We heard a car coming behind us that parked somewhere close to us. We couldn’t see it clearly but we could hear it was near us and we could see another car parked on the road near us. [Then] we saw four men coming from it.”
The respondent said the car he could see was about 600 meters away a black Land Rover with “border police” written on it in white writing and a logo on its side. The four men were wearing forest green shirts and sacramento green pants that looked like the Bulgarian border police uniform. He clearly saw “border police” written on the back of one of the men’s shirts and said the officers carried guns in their holsters. The respondent identified the vehicle and uniforms from the following images.
The respondent recalled:
“They kept waiting there and then we heard other people coming from the other side and suddenly three men appeared…and then the other officers who were standing in the road came toward us as well.”
The three new men were wearing sacramento green jackets that looked like Bulgarian border police uniforms with green pants and black boots. They had “border police” written on their backs and had insignia on their arms. They were carrying Beretta M9s. The respondent recognized the uniforms and guns from the pictures below.
The three men in the Sacramento green jackets immediately began to kick, punch, and beat everyone in the group, including the three minors, with plastic police batons. Then, they gathered everyone together and confiscated all of their belongings, including their phones, money, extra clothes, power banks, shoes, and jackets. The 14 men and boys were left without shoes or jackets until they got back to Edirne, despite the freezing temperatures. During the next 30 or so minutes, the respondent said, “They kept us there and from time to time an officer would get close to us. Sometimes he would kick us sometimes he would hit us with the police baton.” The uniformed men also asked the group where they were from, how they had crossed, if there was a smuggler with them, and where they wanted to go. They replied that they were Syrian, that they had come from the fence, and that they were trying to go to “Sofia camp.” When the group said they wanted to go to “Sofia camp,” implying their desire to ask for asylum, the respondent said the uniformed men “beat us more and more.” He recalled that the uniformed men spoke to them in English and a little Turkish but spoke Bulgarian to each other.
After another 30 minutes or so, the respondent heard another car approach them and then park nearby, but out of sight. Then, a woman and a man wearing black suits appeared. They spoke in English to one of the men wearing the Sacramento green jackets, asking them how they were and where the group was from. The woman took out a camera and took pictures of each of the 14 Syrians, one by one. This whole interaction only lasted about five minutes, and the man and woman left. Soon after, the respondent recalled hearing a truck, and when it came into sight, he saw it was a big, forest green, military truck with a Bulgarian flag on its side. He recognized it from the following picture.
Three more men arrived in the truck, wearing camouflage green, military-like uniforms with Bulgarian flags on the sleeves and balaclavas. The respondent said the uniforms were similar to the one in the picture below.
The 14 Syrians were loaded into the truck’s trunk, which measured about three by one and a half meters, was closed on all sides, and was described as “dark and cold.” They were driven about 10 minutes to the border fence, arriving around what the respondent estimated was 1 pm. The pushback site was wooded on both sides of the fence and, as the group found out later, was close to the spot where they had crossed the day before.
When they got out of the truck, they found the same seven uniformed men as before as well as two black Landrovers. The uniformed men gathered them together and beat all of them, including the minors, for about 15 minutes. They hit them with plastic batons, kicked them, and slapped them. Finally, the respondent recalled, “They opened the door as usual and told us to get out of Bulgaria and never come back.” He added:
“One of the officers screamed at my friend after we were back in Turkey on the other side of the fence. He made a throat-slitting gesture, which the respondent interpreted to mean, ‘Bulgaria is death for you.'”.
The door measured two by one meter and was flipped open by the uniformed men, who forced the men to crawl through the small hole that was revealed. Then, the guide led the group to Doğanköy, a two-hour walk away, where a friend of his picked them up and brought them back to Edirne.