“I was afraid that the boat would flip and I would drown in there because I can't swim”

  • Date and time: November 12, 2021 00:00
  • Location: Lavara/Karayusuflu
  • Coordinates: 41.2699615, 26.38509
  • Pushback from: Greece
  • Pushback to: Turkey
  • Demographics: 70 person(s), age: 3-55 years old , from: Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia, Turkey, Egypt
  • Minors involved? Yes
  • Violence used: beating (with batons/hands/other), kicking, insulting, threatening with guns, forcing to undress, theft of personal belongings, reckless driving
  • Police involved: 2 officers wearing black uniforms, 3 officers wearing blue jackets and pants with insignia on their sleeves and police written on their jackets carrying guns; 1 blue SUV (Frontex) and 1 black pickup truck, both with “police” written on them; 1 white van; 3 or 4 white vans at detention site; 8 officers wearing black bulletproof vests, olive green pants, and olive green shirts that had “police” written in yellow and an insignia that included a Greek flag on the arm; 4 officers wearing the same olive green uniforms but also with balaclavas; 4 officers wearing the same olive green uniforms and balaclavas, 8 officers wearing civilian clothes and balaclavas, and 4 officers wearing all black uniforms that resembled special forces uniforms; 8 officers wearing civilian clothes and balaclavas and 2 officers (soldiers) wearing green camouflage uniforms with Greek insignia on the sleeve and balaclavas and holding guns (these 10 officers spoke Turkish and Arabic); 1 plastic boat
  • Taken to a police station?: yes
  • Treatment at police station or other place of detention: detention, no translator present, denial of food/water, personal belongings taken
  • Was the intention to ask for asylum expressed?: Yes
  • Reported by: josoor

Original Report

At around 11 pm on November 11th, the respondent and approximately 70 other people were pushed back from Lavara, Greece to Karayusuflu, Turkey.

The respondent, a 24-year-old man from Tunisia, left Edirne around 12 am on November 8th with three friends. The other men were from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt and ranged in age from 24 to 36. The group walked for around two hours until they got to the border fence near Bosna, where they spent the day hiding in a small forest as they watched Greek border guards patrol the area. At 8 pm, they crossed the fence, ran for one kilometer, and then began walking until they arrived at a highway, where they saw signs that said “Orestias” and “Nea Vyssa”. They crossed the highway and walked along an unpaved road for four hours, until they found a dry riverbed which they followed until around 6 am, when the sun began to rise. In total they walked around 20 kilometers, only stopping for short breaks along the way.

They reportedly slept in the riverbed and began walking again when the sun set, around 5 pm. They continued this for three days, sleeping during the day and walking by night, always staying far from any villages, and always walking in wooded areas. Finally, they arrived at a small village near the border with Bulgaria called Therapeio. The respondent recalled:

“…we were out of food and we were starving and we decided that one of us would go to the village and get us food and more water and cigarettes and we would spend the night there then go to Bulgaria when it got dark.”

His friend reportedly changed his clothes and went into the village while the rest of the group stayed hidden in a small forest outside the village. 30 minutes later, the friend returned, but he was followed by officers who apprehended the men. The respondent said:

“My friend assumed that the store owner called the police after he bought stuff from her. He gave her 50 euros just to give him four bottles of water and bread and salami and one pack of cigarettes. When my friend arrived we could hear someone coming and suddenly five officers appeared and surrounded us from all sides and told us to not move and started kicking us to make us sit next to each other.”

Two of the officers were wearing black uniforms while the other three officers were wearing blue jackets and pants with insignia on their sleeves and police written on their jackets. They also carried firearms. 

The officers in black spoke English to the group and asked the respondent where he was from, how and where they crossed the border, and if there were any others traveling with them. He answered them truthfully and then the other officers told the men to give them their phones and stand up one at a time to be searched. According to the respondent, the phones were put in a white plastic bag and were never returned to the men. 

After 20 minutes, the officers reportedly took the men down a hill to a dirt road where their cars were parked. One was a blue SUV and one was a black pickup truck; both had “police” written on them. 

The men sat there for around ten minutes until what the respondent described as a white unmarked transit van arrived.

According to the respondent, the group were loaded into the back of the van by the officers who had apprehended them. The respondent estimated that this happened around 9 AM on the 12th of November. They were then driven for about three hours along a paved road, during which time the van stopped a few times. A few minutes before they arrived at the detention site, the respondent said the driving became faster and the road changed to unpaved. 

The van arrived at the detention site and the group was unloaded from the van. The respondent recalled seeing houses nearby, a high barbed wire fence surrounding the vicinity, and three or four vans like the one they were brought in without license plates in the yard. Approximately eight officers were in the yard, wearing black bulletproof vests, olive green pants, and olive green shirts that had “police” written in yellow and an insignia that included a Greek flag on the arm. 

The respondent recalled that:

“Once they took us out from the van, they told us to wait and stay standing near a wall in a small yard before they put us inside in a cell. Then four officers wearing gloves came to search us. They asked us to take our things and put them where there was a lot of other stuff from other people and they searched every part of our clothes and told us to take off our clothes.”

According to the respondent, the men were left completely naked for ten minutes and then instructed to get dressed and take their money, though neither their jackets nor their recent purchases were returned to them.

The four men were taken to a cell that was allegedly around five by six meters and had a toilet inside. Around 16 Afghan men were already in the cell and were occupying the five bunk beds (without mattresses) so the group sat on the cement floor. The respondent said that the walls looked old and were covered with names of people he assumed had been there before him. They spent around eight or nine hours there, during which time small groups were brought in every half hour or so until more than 100 people were detained in the small cell. The detainees included people from Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Turkey and ranged in age from 3 to 55 years old. The respondent estimated that there were 14 minors, some of whom were traveling without their parents, and five women. 

Finally, four officers wearing the same olive green uniforms as the previous officers, but also with balaclavas, came and told the detainees to go outside. They reportedly hit the group with a plastic baton to make them go faster and took them out to where there were more officers. Eight were wearing civilian clothes and balaclavas, four were wearing the same olive green uniforms as the previous officers, and four were wearing all-black uniforms that resembled special forces uniforms. 

The people were loaded into two vans—around 30 to 35 people in each. The officers wearing the balaclavas hit the group with branches to make them get in the vans faster. The respondent estimated that this occurred around 9 or 10 PM. Once they were loaded into the vans, the group were reportedly driven about an hour to the river. The respondent recalled:

“We kept shaking inside like we were a flock of sheep being taken to the slaughterhouse. It was so fast that we all lost balance and we kept colliding the whole way…we couldn’t [see anything] and we could barely breathe. The van was closed on all sides—they made sure that we didn’t see anything.”

The two vans arrived at the river with approximately 70 people in them, including women and children. Later, another van arrived carrying the rest of the people from the detention site. In addition to the six officers that came with the vans, there were eight more officers wearing civilian clothes and two wearing green camouflage uniforms and holding guns, all wearing balaclavas. The respondent saw a Greek insignia on the sleeve of the camouflage uniforms.

One of the officers in the camouflage uniform told the group in Arabic to “step in line and kneel and crawl slowly to the river without making noise.” When they got to the river, they searched everyone and began to load them into a plastic boat that was about two by three meters long. They searched everyone, including the women; the respondent recalled:

“I saw how they just kept touching them and looking for money even inside their clothes and some of them were crying…and they kept checking every detail of our clothes and then they asked us to remove our shoes and while [an officer] was searching me he found five Turkish lira in my back pocket and thought I was hiding money and he started punching me in my face and beating me with the baton.”

He was reportedly beaten for three minutes and then told to go down and wait for the boat to come back. 

Eight people at a time were loaded into the small boat along with two drivers who were wearing civilian clothes, though the respondent estimated that the boat was designed to fit only five people. He heard the officers speaking Turkish to each other and one of the boat drivers spoke Arabic with an Algerian accent, telling him “Make space mother fucker, move a bit forward asshole.” 

The respondent recounted:

“…while they were paddling to get us to the other side I saw water come inside. I was afraid that the boat would flip and I would drown in there because I can’t swim, but anyway in the end they didn’t bring us to the other side. Three or four meters before it they told us to jump and continue wading in the river to get to the Turkish shore…The water was touching my chest and I was afraid that it would get deep and I wouldn’t be able to make it and it was freezing cold.”

According to the respondent, everyone, including women and children, were forced to jump into the water and continue to the shore on their own. 

On the Turkish side, the respondent and his friends walked, shoeless, for around an hour until they arrived at Karayusuflu, where they saw a sign that said Edirne was 70 kilometers away. They continued walking for two days until they arrived at Edirne, eating nothing along the way and just drinking water from a public faucet. 

The respondent added that “When they caught us my Egyptian friend asked for asylum but they laughed and didn’t answer us and continued talking to each other.”