“We go from Velika Kladuša, about 13 persons [other than myself], we have 3 women, and 3 girls – children – and the other parts of the group young [men]. We go from Velika Kladuša on a Friday [June, 14th]”
Over the course of seven days, the group walked across the interior of Croatia through forests, over mountains, and through rivers. On the third day there was “crazy rain” and “lighting that arrived to the ground.” All of their possessions were soaking wet with water. After four days in the forests they had finished all of their food. They found an abandoned mountain house and found water inside to drink. At some point during their journey, the husband and wife in the group took their two youngest children (ages 5 and 7 years old) and turned themselves in to the police. Their other two children (ages 13 and 15 years old) stayed with the rest of the group.
On the 21st of June, the next Friday, the group arrived at the Kolpa river at border of Slovenia. The group attempted to cross into Slovenia across an old, wooden bridge which was half broken and strewn with broken tiles.
When they initially approached the bridge, they saw that there were Slovenian police officer stationed near the bridge on the other side and decided to wait for them to leave. After waiting for several hours and watching the Slovenian authorities leave the area, the group prepared to cross. One man from the group went down to check the road on the Croatian side of the border and at this point two Croatian police officer who were sitting under the bridge saw the group member checking the road.
They told the group members to come out of the forest, but the group did not want to. The police carried two firearms – one big and one small – which they fired into the air when the group resisted their orders to come down from the forest.
“When we come here Croatia police have two men. [They say to us] “Stop! Stop! Sit down! Sit down!”
One of the officers wore a dark blue t-shirt and pants. He was described as having blue eyes and short blond hair, and being around 30 years old. The other officer wore a dark grey uniform and was described as also being around 30 years old, but carrying more weight. Neither wore hats.
The officers searched the group, took their mobile phones, power banks, a woman had a knife which they confiscated.
“They were maybe polite with us”
Still, the respondents described being uncomfortable with the way they were treated by these officers.
“They ask me, are you hungry? And I say “so much, I have not eaten for many days” and they start laughing
The police told the group members to sit on the ground and to take out their phones and money and put them on the ground. The group waited one hour sitting on the ground before three more police officers arrived driving a large white van without windows. They were dressed the same way as the police officer in the dark blue uniform. The respondents described seeing all of their items which had previously been confiscated being put in a bag and taken to the front of the car.
“And our mobile phones and power bank in bag, in one bag”
The group was then loaded into the van which they described as cramped, completely dark, and poorly ventilated. They were then transported to a police station, which took around 30 minutes to arrive to.
“It’s night in the car and no air”
“We get in the car, the big car, and go to the police center, the station.”
When they arrived at the station, the respondents described being put into a very small cell together.
“We enter the station and they put us in a room. A prison, it was a prison.”
“13 persons in one room maybe 2 meters and 3 meters”
“We enter and close the door, we are 13 persons come to this prison. It had toilet and water. After about 5 minutes, we have woman have a problem. We need a doctor, no doctor. Wait wait wait. We have a children who is hungry. Wait wait wait”
After some time in the cell, the group-members were brought out again and processed by the officers at the station who took down their information and wrote it into a document.
“After that they take our document. As a report. Name, surname, your father, your mother, age.”
One of the respondents who spoke English well was told to translate for the other group-members at this point.
“I was translator between the police and my friends. I write the information in their documents”
One of the respondents asked the officer if these documents could potentially be harmful to him and his friends and was told no. It was just for documentation, he was told. The respondent was under the impression at the time that this information would be sent to the UNHCR. After finishing the information, the group-members then had their pictures taken with this information.
“After we take this document, it is finished, they take picture with name and date”
At around this point, the fifteen and thirteen year olds in the group were taken by the police to a closed camp in Zagreb where their parents and younger siblings were put after they left the group and turned themselves into the police two days earlier.
The rest of the group was then taken back to their cell and told “Go to sleep” at around 8:00 am. Five hours later, at around 1:00 pm, the group could hear that another group from either Iraq or Iran was placed in the cell next to them.
“We hear in the next room, children was crying, many children.”
Finally, at about 2:00 pm, the group was approached by a police officer who took them three at a time back to the van which had initially transported them to the police station. They were able to take their personal bags with them in the back of the windowless van. However, the plastic bags in which their phones and power banks were being held was taken into the front of the van. The vehicle then drove for two hours to an unidentified location before stopping and taking on another passenger in the front.
“After two hours the car stops. We hear the police laughing, laughing, laughing…and another man gets [in the car], we don’t see this man.”
The respondents inferred that the individual who entered the car at this point was the police officer who would later beat them particularly severely at the border. Finally, after another hour of driving, they arrived at the Bosnian-Croatian border
“After one hour we arrive to the border of Croatia and Bosnia. In the border there is a wall, maybe 1 meter high…The police come to the car. You and you and you, come here…”
While still locked inside of the van, the group could hear the police officers outside breaking their phones with rocks, chuckling amongst themselves.
“We heard them laughing when they broke our phones”
They discovered later that their phones had been broken by some sort of hammer and chisel [pictures above]. When the door was finally opened, the group-members briefly saw a man dressed entirely in black, clad with a black balaclava mask, talking with the three other officers present at the push-back site.
“When they open the door, I see him with police talking”
“[He wore a] black mask. Same D’aesh”
“This D’aesh man [was dressed in] all black, he doesn’t show any of his body, just his eyes”
The three other officers were dressed in dark blue uniforms, with one older officer being identified as a potential leader. The respondents described initially seeing this masked man motioning to the other officers to wait as he headed down a pathway into Bosnia. Because she was ill, the police escorted the woman who was sick out of the van and told her to wait for the rest of the group a hundred meters away from where the van was parked.
After the officer with the balaclava mask headed off down the path, the men described being taken out of the van three at a time and being told to pick up their bags before being told, forcefully and suddenly, “Hajde, go!” by the authorities next to the van, who threatened them with their batons.
“Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!”
“The first police [hit] you, but not fast, and we run ‘Go! Go! Go!’
As each group of three ran away from the officers stationed next to the van, they encountered the masked officer who was hidden perhaps ten meters away, down the path on the Bosnian side of the border. As the group members ran down this path, away from the previous officers, the masked officer was described as jumping out from a hiding place between two trees. The officer was described by several group-members as holding a club-like weapon well over a meter in length with two hands, which he swung forcefully at each passing group, attempting to hit them. The respondents described the blows from this weapon as having a large amount of force behind them. They remarked at how different it was from a typical police baton.
“[After] 5 meters or 10 meters, this man between the trees come here. He have a tall stick, and kick you, kick you”
“The sticks that police have are maybe a half meter, [this was] not like police. Very tall…maybe silicone or wood, maybe about two meters”
“Have stick, not like police. Very tall.”
The majority of the group was able to evade the officer, receiving only glancing blows, however one member of the group, a 50-year-old father, slipped and fell onto the ground after being hit by this officer’s club. He described feeling this club strike his body eight times, as the officer swung the weapon at him with two hands.
“Boom! Boom! Boom…I see him, [it was like he] needed to kill me. Angry, angry angry, angry angry.”
“When we run fast, he maybe [hit] you one or two [times]. We run fast. My friend ‘T.’ fall down in this area, and he [hit] one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, times.”
“Huge man, big man”
The older group-member described being hit twice on his back, on his left and right arm, his backside, and on his head by this long club. Originating from Syria, he likened this officer’s uniform and tactics to those used by the so-called Islamic State back in his home country.
“What you think D’aesh make in Syria, he make like this here”
“And the police [next to the vehicle] see all of this”
After escaping from the masked officer, each pair of three ran around a bend in the road further into Bosnia and waited for the rest of their group to pass this gauntlets. Finally, when all of the group had passed through this procedure, the man in the balaclava mask returned to the other police officers at which point one of the officers took out his pistol and fired it into the air three times.
The group then walked down a mostly straight road which eventually passed by a supermarket. After approximately 20 km of walking, they finally reached Velika Kladusa. The men had crossed many borders in the last months since leaving their homes in Idlib and escribed disbelief at the level of violence that they had encountered in Croatia:
“And all of these borders, nobody treated us [like this]”
“It’s not just with our group, it’s all groups”