The respondent, a 29-year-old Tunisian man, was pushed back from Valcha Polyana, Bulgaria to Hamzabeyli, Turkey at around 10 am on March 11, 2022. He had previously been pushed back from Greece twice and from Bulgaria at least four times.
At 11 am on March 1, 2022, the respondent and his friend, a 30-year-old Moroccan man, took a bus from Edirne to Lalapaşa. From there, they walked for about four hours along unpaved roads through wooded areas until they arrived at the Turkish-Bulgarian border fence at around 3 or 4 pm. The respondent reported that the fence was about five meters high and had barbed wire on the Turkish side; he also recalled seeing an unpaved road along the Bulgarian side.
Once they arrived at the fence, the respondent and his friend immediately jumped over it and then ran to get as far away from the border as possible. After approximately 30 minutes, they slowed to a walk. They continued walking for ten days, hoping to go all the way to Sofia. The respondent recalled, “We walked most of it by night but sometimes we walked during the day if it was forest. And we did rest sometimes. We would sleep in the forest or some spot of course far from the village and cities. And we would rest for 20 minutes to eat or drink or smoke.”
The men had only 20 euros and had brought enough food with them to last for a while, but they eventually ran out. On March 11, at around 8 am, they stopped in the outskirts of Sliven to buy more food. The respondent recounted:
“We were so hungry and we were out of food already—we hadn’t eaten for seven hours. We had no choice but to go to the store that appeared on the map near Sliven and buy some food and then continue on our way. We wore clean clothes and went to the grocery store and we bought stuff from it. After we left, we got about 500 meters from the grocery store when two men [dressed in civilian clothes] told us to stop. I stopped in my tracks but my friend ran away. One [of the men] stayed with me and the other ran behind my friend. There were citizens sitting who also tried to catch my friend, which they did until the man in civilian clothes got him.”
The two men asked the respondent and his friend for papers. When they responded that they were refugees the men asked them where they were from and then spoke to someone on the phone. The respondent said:
“They punched me in my face and kept slapping and kicking my friend until they put us together. Then they handcuffed us and loaded us into the backseat of the Fiat car.”
The car was gray and looked like the one in Image 1.
Image 1: Gray unmarked Fiat Doblo
They drove along a paved road through the city for around 30 minutes until they arrived at a spot outside of town where three men wearing uniforms were waiting for them. These men wore black jackets with four pockets on the front, an insignia of a lion on the left sleeve, and ranks on their shoulder as well as black pants and black boots (Image 2). They were driving a green jeep with a white stripe and Bulgarian writing on the side (Image 3). The respondent identified the uniforms and jeep from the following pictures.
Image 2: Bulgarian National Police Uniform
Image 3: Bulgarian Police Jeep
The two men in civilian clothing removed the handcuffs from the respondent and his friend, took their bag from them (which contained the food they had just bought), put them into the jeep’s trunk, and then left. The three uniformed men got into the jeep as well and drove, fast, for around 45 minutes along paved roads. The respondent recalled, “[we] saw paved roads all the way until we arrived at a sign that had Elhovo written on it. But the car didn’t go into the city—they drove to an unpaved road inside the forest near Elhovo.”
The respondent and his friend were taken out of the trunk and told to sit down. Then, the respondent said, “[an officer] kicked me on my face—I was lucky to cover it with my hand. Then all of them started kicking us and slapping us.” This went on for 15 to 20 minutes, at which point another car arrived. The car was a black Nissan X-Trail with “border police” written on the hood in white and a license plate number that contained “BG”. It had Bulgarian writing on its side as well as an official crest that was green with a yellow lion inside of it. The respondent identified it from the picture below (Image 4).
Inside the car were four men dressed in Sacramento green jackets and pants with “border police” written on their backs and a crest with a lion and a Bulgarian flag in it on their sleeves (Image 5), which the respondent recognized from the following picture.
The respondent and his friend were loaded into the trunk of the Nissan X-Trail; the respondent said they could barely sit in it because it was so small. At this point, he said, “We were exhausted and hungry and thirsty and beaten…we spent 10 days walking in the snow and the cold weather while being hungry then they pushed us back in one hour.”
They were driven in a fast manner for about 40 minutes. The windows were blocked so they couldn’t see anything outside until they stopped and were let out of the car at a spot in a forest where all they could see was the border fence, wind turbines on the Turkish side, and an unpaved road. The only other people there were the four men in the Sacramento green uniforms, who spoke Bulgarian to each other and a little bit of English to the respondent and his friend. They asked them where they were from and where they crossed from. They also said, “Go back to Turkey and don’t try again. Europe is not good.”
The uniformed men searched the other two and took their shoes, jackets, and phone. They also beat them for about five minutes each, focusing their blows on the men’s calves and thighs. Then, they opened an unofficial door in the fence and pushed the two men back. Two of the uniformed men followed them into Turkish territory, hitting them with a plastic baton and telling them to run.
The respondent and his friend walked through the forest for about 40 minutes until they arrived at the village of Hamzabeyli, where an old man gave them bread and water. They continued walking for another 20 minutes to the bus station, where they were able to hitch a ride back to Edirne for free.
When asked if they had asked for asylum while in Bulgaria, the respondent responded,
“We did when the men wearing black uniforms asked us ‘Where do you want to go?’ We said ‘France asylum Bulgaria asylum’ to make him take pity on us and take us to the camp…the officer wearing green uniforms similar to Bulgarian border police said ‘Europe is not good. Go back to Turkey.’ And the men wearing black uniforms said nothing but just kicked me.”