““They were torturing him… The officer was trying to drown him.” - four Cubans recount a violent pushback of 40 people from Greece to Turkey.”

  • Date and time: October 31, 2021 00:00
  • Location: near Alexandroupolis, around Feres
  • Coordinates: 40.8942408, 26.1722017
  • Pushback from: Greece
  • Pushback to: Turkey
  • Demographics: 40 person(s), age: 3-35 years old , from: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Cuba
  • Minors involved? Yes
  • Violence used: beating (with batons/hands/other), pushing people to the ground, exposure to air condition and extreme temperature during car ride, insulting, water immersion, forcing to undress, theft of personal belongings, reckless driving, threatening with EDWs
  • Police involved: Specific to FIRST ACCOUNT: 1x civilian clothed fat white officer with white hair; 6x greek officers in civilian clothes, speaking in english and greek; 2x vans, white, one had number plate starting with “7H3”; 4x officers - 1x in dark blue uniform holding baton, 3x civilian clothes; Specific to BOTH ACCOUNTS: 3x officers, dark blue uniforms, 1x woman, 2x man; 1x white van; 3x vans - 1x grey prisoner transporter, 2x white vans; 7x military officers - 4x wearing balaclavas, dark green uniforms, 3x no balaclavas, in camouflage uniforms - light green t-shirts, camouflage trousers, black boots, jackets with “police” written in yellow on the back; 2x dark coloured van; 6x officers wearing balaclavas, with jackets saying ‘police’ on their back, holding guns; 1x yellow inflatable rowing boat 3m in length; 2x maybe Turkish-looking officers in civilian clothes; 2x Turkish military officers wearing camouflage uniforms armed with rifles. Specific to SECOND ACCOUNT: 2x civilian clothed officers; 1x white van; 7x officers - 3x dark blue uniforms, 4x civilian clothes; 1x white van
  • 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, forced undressing, denial of medical assistance, theft of personal belongings
  • Was the intention to ask for asylum expressed?: Yes
  • Reported by: josoor

Original Report

This account records two testimonies of the same pushback, but they are separated because their apprehension stories are different. The first testimony was taken from three Cuban men – aged 26, 33, and 38 years of age – and the second testimony was taken from a fourth Cuban man who is 25 years of age. These two testimonies merge at the second place of detention. These four Cuban men had never been pushed back before, and they had never previously been to Turkey.

FIRST ACCOUNT

Three Cuban men – aged 26, 33 and 28 years old – had flown from Cuba to Moscow, Russia. Then they took another flight from Moscow to Belgrade, Serbia. From Belgrade they walked via land to the Serbian/North Macedonian border, then walked from there to the N. Macedonian/Greek border. They arrived at a village called Cuma Noma at the N. Macedonian/Greek border, before they crossed into Greece in the early morning on 29th October. They continued walking until they arrived at Polykastro, a small Greek town, at 7.30am. The three men bought a ticket, costing 70 euros each, for a bus to go to Thessaloniki. While they waited for the bus a police officer approached them. “He was white, fat with white hair,” explained one of the respondents. This officer was wearing civilian clothing and only identifiable as an officer because he stated he was. The officer asked “what are you doing here”, and one of the men got afraid and stated “we are tourists”. But, the men explained that the officer knew they were not, and that they were Cuban and that they wanted to seek asylum. The men admitted that was the case. The officer told them where to put their luggage in the bus and they boarded with no issue. The bus took about 1.5 hours until they arrived at Thessaloniki at 9-9.30am on 29th October.

The men had a Chilean smuggler who was guiding them remotely through their phones. The smuggler had their GPS and so could see what they were doing and where exactly they were going . He had said to the Cubans that they should not be together inside the police station, and they should avoid the police as much as they could. Two of the Cubans from the group paid $600 each to the smuggler; they were able to avoid the other Cuban guy to pay the smuggler.

The group went to get bus tickets to continue to Athens, paying €35 each. They also paid €7 for a rapid antigen COVID-19 test. They waited for their negative result and then collected their ticket. The bus they bought tickets for was the 2.35pm bus. They boarded the bus and it departed. Approximately 7 minutes after the bus left, it suddenly stopped. Police boarded the bus, and immediately asked everyone for ID. There were two officers wearing civilian clothes, with nothing suggesting they were police officers apart from them announcing that they were police.  There was another family of Cubans on the bus – 4 people: mum, dad, brother of mum, and a 17 year old son – and they were asked by the officers why they did not have ID, to which they responded saying “we entered from Macedonia and want to ask for political asylum”. The police said in response that they have to get off the bus and that they will have to go to detention. This family was removed from the bus, along with the 3 Cubans and a 20 year old Pakistani man (who did not have a passport). 

When they got off the bus, they noticed the other officers. In total there were 6 officers – 2 who boarded the bus, and another 4 who stayed off the bus. The 4 who stayed off the bus were also dressed in civilian clothes. These officers had two vans, both white in colour and the respondents identified the model as potentially a Renault. One of the vans’ number plates started with a “7H3…”. The police took all of their belongings, including their phones and passports, of which they never saw again. The officers spoke in broken English to the group and a bit in Greek.

Within the belongings was one of the respondent’s HIV medications. The respondent explained that he did not tell the officers that there was HIV medication in his bag, that he desperately needed to keep, because they were led to believe that they would get their stuff back. So he did not specifically ask for his HIV medication back. The officers did allow one of the women on the bus to keep her medication as she told them she was diabetic. He did ask for his bags back, but the officer refused. They told each other not to say anything as they did not know how they would react, so this was also a contributing factor to why they did not say anything.

When the 3 Cuban men got off the bus, the police officers asked them “what are you doing in Greece”. The men replied saying “we want to claim political asylum”. The officers responded “do not worry, nothing is going to happen. Everything is ok”. Then, the 3 Cubans, the Cuban family of 4 and the Pakistani man, were put in one of the vans together. Inside this van there were seats. One of the Cuban men noticed there was a microphone covered in plastic, and told everyone not to speak as he believed that they [the officers] would be listening to them.

They were all taken to a detention centre at about 3pm, on the 29th October. After about 30 minutes of driving they arrived at a detention centre, the officers got out of the van but got back in a few minutes later. The group interpreted this as that the detention centre was full. They were not able to see anything of the first place of detention, they only saw the door, which they described as basically a large warehouse. Then, they were driven for another 15 minutes before they arrived at another place of detention. The driving was very fast, and they were not able to see anything as there were no windows in the van. The other van, that the first officers were the one the people were not loaded in, did not come with them to the second place of detention.

When they arrived at the second location, the officers said to the people “don’t worry, tomorrow we will let you go. We are checking your documents and passports are valid”. The group was told they were just staying the night and then tomorrow they would be let go. 

When they got out of the van they saw what they described as a “small police station” with “narrow hallways”, and had “two cells”.  There were 4 officers identified, one in police uniform who seemed to be in charge of the place (according to the respondents). This officer was wearing a dark blue, long sleeved shirt, dark blue pants, black boots and held a baton. This officer remarked he was police. See Image 1 below, the uniform that the Cubans identified to be worn by these officers.

Image 1: Greek border police uniforms, as identified by the respondents

There was also another officer, who the respondents described as seeming to be the boss too, who was not in uniform. Then, there were two other officers, both in civilian clothes.

Before they entered the “police station”, the respondents were body searched and patted down. They were forced to lie down while they were checked. The officers took the rest of their belongings – this included rings, necklaces, cords of jackets, belts, shoe laces – and told them to put them in a bag. Everyone cooperated as they thought they would get their stuff back. In total four officers were checking the group. Two of the three cuban cuban men were taken aside separately to a different room and had their anuses checked to see if they were hiding anything. They were forced to take down their trousers and underwear in order for the officers to properly check. 

A police officer was insisting that the three Cubans had come from Turkey. But the group said no, they had come from Macedonia. But the officer continued to insist. The group had asked for a phone call and a lawyer, but the officer said “no no” to both requests.

The officers do not appear to have searched the family as vigorously as the two Cuban men, nor anyone else. The respondents stated that they did not see the family searched in this way, however they did not ask the family if they had been searched like that.

The police who searched the two Cubans found some money on them, but the police told them to keep it. In total they had about 800€ together. “Keep it and put it away, hold onto it,” said one of the police officers to the Cubans after they were searched.

The checking lasted about 10 minutes for everyone in the group. Then they were separated and put into two cells. The family of 4 Cubans were placed in a small cell, about 4 x 4 m. Then, the three Cubans, with the Pakistani man, were put together in another cell which they said had mattresses all over the floor, smelt terrible and had a toilet in the corner which was very dirty. This was about 5 x 4m in size. In their cell, they were given a 1 litre bottle of water to share between everyone. Inside this cell there was a 25 year old Cuban man (whose testimony is after this one, see: SECOND ACCOUNT). They were kept in the cell until they thought it was 4-5pm. 

At around 7pm the same day (29th), other people arrived. Approximately 17 more people were brought to the cell. There were 3 Syrians, 7 Afghans. In total, including the 3 Cubans and the Pakistani man, there were about 21 people in the cell – all men. They were aged between 19 and 35 years of age. There were only men in the bigger cell (the one the Cuban men were in).

The Cuban family were alone in the smaller cell, but the respondents could not necessarily see who else was in the cell as there was a wall obstructing their view. But, you had to pass by the small cell down a narrow hallway in order to get to the bigger cell. They saw the family were alone when they eventually left the cells. 

At 10/11pm at night, a family arrived. There was a husband and mother, aged 27-29 years old, with their 3 year old son. They were also Cuban, but the respondents did not know they were Cuban until the morning when they spoke to each other. Mattresses were laid out in the hallway for this family to stay there. The mattresses were laid in front of the big cell so they could talk. The mother cried a lot, and they spent the night there. The officers gave their3-year-old boy some water and cookies.

The woman cried throughout the night. In the morning, on 30th October, one of the Cuban men went to speak to the husband. The 3 Cubans were incredibly hungry as they had not eaten, and because the family had a son, they were able to bring a backpack into the detention. The husband gave the 3 Cubans an energy bar for them to share.

There was a TV playing in the hallway, and at one point one of the respondents could see the time. All the people detained had spent the whole morning there. The family were still in the hallway, and no one, including the family, was given food or water. It was about 1/2pm when they were taken out of the cell, by the same 4 police officers as the night before, according to the time on the TV. The people were told they would be let go. 

Before they were able to be let out of the cell, they were told to reorganise the cell and put the mattresses away. The officers asked how many Afghans, Syrians, Pakistanis or Cubans were in the cell, and called them out each once at a time and told them to raise their hands. So this is how the Cubans knew how many people there were of each nationality.

People were let out of the cells two by two, with the police officers yelling “go go” at them, to hurry them up. When they got outside, they found three more officers. There was one woman with long hair, and two men. These officers were wearing the same uniforms as the previous officers – dark blue. These officers were in a different white van, which had no seats inside. All of the people from within the detention centre – approximately 30 of them – were loaded into the van. No one was hit, they were just grabbed by the arm and loaded quickly into the van. There was no space, some stood and some sat. It was very hot inside, and there were no windows. But, there was a vent on the ceiling of the van which brought in fresh air so they were able to breathe a bit. One of the respondents remarked he was standing close to this vent, and was able to breathe, but others were not.

They were driven for approximately 4 hours. The driving was very fast, with one of the respondents remarking the driving as “terrible”. “It seemed like they were trying to make us hit the sides of the van”, continued the respondent. 

There was a small window that one of the respondents was able to see out of in the van. He remarked that there was a sign pointing to Macedonia, and then they were on a highway. There was an Alexandroupolis sign that was seen after about 2-3 hours of driving. It said “in 5km Alexandroupolis”. It was approximately after about one hour after they saw this sign that they arrived at the next, what the respondents remarked as, “police station”. They believe that the drive took about 3-4 hours in total, but they were not completely sure as they did not have the time. By the time they arrived they believed it was around 5pm, as it was getting dark but it was still light, at about sundown.

When they arrived at the detention site, described as a “police station”, there were police standing outside. The respondents identified lots of police at the detention site. There were 3 vans full of people – one was grey, described as a prisoner transport. The other two were white, and had seats on the left and right on the inside. The 11 Cubans, and 3 Syrians (who were pretending to be Cubans, hence why they were placed with the Cubans) were put inside the grey prisoner transport. These Syrians did not speak Spanish, but they spoke English. The Syrians were explaining to the Cubans that they will all be pushed back to Turkey, as they could tell the Cubans were stressed. For these three Syrians, it was the 3rd time they had been pushed back. While the other 20-25 people – Afghan, Syrian, Pakistani – were split between the other two white vans. 

In total, there were between 60-70 people in these vans. The respondents explained there were no more women, but only two Cuban women. The ages of this group ranged from 19 to 35 years old, as well as the 3 year old boy.

Inside the grey van, there were three windows, but they were covered by a screen so they could see a bit outside, but not much. There were also bars separating the drivers – two officers, one in uniform (same uniforms as before), one without – from the people detained in the van. When they were changing vans, the respondents identified 6 new officers – some were wearing uniforms, same as before (Image 1), but some were also not, but could not identify exactly how many were wearing what. While they were being changed into different vans, there were the gates to the “police station” so they were able to see a small street outside. An older Greek woman passed by, a local of the town. The respondents remarked she seemed surprised at how roughly the officers were treating the people being put into vans. But she left. Then, the vans left. This whole process took about 10-15 minutes. No one was beaten while being loaded into the van, rather they were just moved very quickly and grabbed by their arms and put into the van.

They were driven for about 50 minutes to 1 hour. They passed by airports, through toll booths, as well as signs for Turkey. Towards the end of the hour the respondents identified a sign saying “Alexandroupolis 5km”.

Then they arrived at a place where there was a yellow cement wall around it. The vans entered through the gates and entered a parking lot. Next to the parking lot was a one-storey building. The respondents identified this area as a “military area”. There were 7 military officers at this location – 4 were wearing balaclavas, all wearing dark green uniforms. The other three, who were not wearing balaclavas, wore camouflage uniforms (light green t-shirts, camouflage trousers and black boots. These uniforms had yellow letters on the backs of their jackets that spelt out “police”.

They could see people from the first two vans inside the building, while they waited in their van. They were able to see through the screens of the windows. “Everybody was naked” exclaimed one of the respondents. They had been forced to take off their clothes, and they could see people were hit by officers as they entered the building. The group noticed just outside/inside the entrance into the building they saw a pile of clothes and jackets at the door. Some of the people in the building who were stripped naked, were also beaten by these officers, as remarked by the respondents. After people inside the building were beaten, they were ordered to put their clothes back on and put in another van.

The people inside the building, who were told to put their clothing back on, were placed into a new van which was dark in colour outside the building. The respondents only saw some people come out, but more people went into the building than came out. They have no idea how many people got into the back of the van outside, but remarked that groups of people between 5-7 were being taken into the van from inside the building. 

The van with all of the Cubans in was left until last to be unloaded and when they were brought into the building. As they were taken out of the van, they were hit with plastic batons. When they were taken in, they were brought into a closed room. The mother and father who had the 3 year old boy, the 3 year old boy himself, as well as the other Cuban women were spared from being hit. The rest of the group were hit with plastic batons. The Cubans were asked what religion they were by the officers. The respondents remarked “if you were not Christian, you were treated bad”. They were all forced to undress. All of the beating and undressing took place inside a big room.

One of the respondents was ordered to take out his nipple piercings by the officers. But, the respondent remarked he was so nervous and he could not, despite his attempts to. Then, one of the officers threatened him with an electric discharge weapon (EDW) on his chest to take them out and he got incredibly afraid. This officer then hit him over his head with a piece of wood. 

The officers that beat the group were beating them all over, either with plastic batons or pieces of wood. The officers who beat them were the ones not wearing balaclavas, in camouflage uniforms (as described above). The officers were laughing and joking as they were beating the group. These officers spoke in Greek, and spoke in little English to them.

The Cubans were speaking in English to the officers. The officers remarked to the 3 Cuban respondents “What are you doing here?”. One of the respondents said “I am a Cuban doctor, I came here on holiday.”. The officers asked “where did you get the money?”, to which he responded “these are savings from Cuba”. The officers replied “take the money and stick it up your ass”. The officers did not take the money from them then, but the money stayed in the jacket which they were not allowed to put back on.

This process took about 20 minutes in total. The group were allowed to put some clothes back on, excluding jackets and shoes. In the big room there were 7 Cubans, and 3 Syrians (who pretended to be Cuban), and then the four other Cubans (one woman, and the family of three including a 3 year old) were held in a separate room.

The respondents were shown a list of detention centres, and they said it looked similar to Poros Border Guard Station but it was not this one exactly. “We didn’t see anyone else inside the detention site before they left, so we were not sure where they all went” remarked the respondent, but they were sure that more people went in than went out.

After they put on their clothes, they were placed into a dark van. All the Cubans were put in this van, along with the three Syrians. The two women in the group were allowed to put their shoes on. This was at about 7-8pm at night. They were then driven for approximately 30 minutes. The driving was fast and reckless, driving with sharp turns, along paved and unpaved roads. Inside this van there were no seats.

After 30 minutes, they arrived at the pushback point. They did not know how many vans were there exactly as they were not able to see. There were 30 people already there when they arrived, and the respondents remarked they recognised these 30 people from the previous detention site so made the link that people were taken from this detention site, along with their van, to the same pushback point. Not everyone from the place of detention was there as not everyone left the building, as explained by the respondents.

When they were taken out of the van they were split into small groups. One officer was in front of them, and one behind each group, both wearing balaclavas. These officers had “police” written on their back and they were all holding guns. These officers told people to be quiet and “get down, get down” to avoid being seen. In total, there were 2-3 groups of people, with a total of 6 officers (all wearing balaclavas). These groups walked to the river’s edge, down a dirt road – in the Evros/Meriç region between Greece and Turkey – with the journey taking about 10 minutes in total until they reached the river. When they arrived they were basically in/by a forest.

At one point there was a pile of shoes on their walk alongside the dirt road. If anyone was still wearing shoes, they were made to take their shoes off. Only the women were allowed to keep theirs.

At the river, there was a young man, approximately 20 years old, his appearance being either Afghan or Syrian, from the group, explained the respondents. He was begging “I want to stay, I want to stay” to the officers. One of the officers’ names was “Kandish”. This officer started to hit the boy in the face with a wire. Then, the boy was dragged by this officer all the way to the river’s edge. The officer began to push his face into the river. “They were torturing him”, remarked the respondent. “The officer was trying to drown him”. One of the other officers said in English, “Kandish, Kandish, it’s enough. You are looking for problems. You are going to get in trouble”. The respondents explained they thought they were Greek officers, but these ones spoke a bit in English. “That officer [who said this is enough] was trying to protect the kid as Kandish [the officer] could have killed them”. 

At the river’s edge, the groups were put into two lines. There was a rowing boat on the river’s edge, with two officers in this boat. This boat was about 3 metres in length, yellow and inflatable. These officers were not wearing balaclavas. They were wearing dark clothing, with no insignia suggesting that they were officers. “We don’t think they were Greek, but maybe they were Turkish”, explained the respondent. 

From here they were loaded into the boat, 8 at a time, with the two officers staying in the boat. The pushback point was identified as close to Feres by the respondents, as well as based on locations they had mentioned throughout the testimony..

Then, they were taken across to the other side, but then still had to cross part of the river. The officers in the boat said “when you get to the other side [of the river] you are free, and you can walk towards the light and find the closest village”. It was not an island, and the other side did not have a strong current. The group walked about 10 minutes until they got to the second part of (?) the river. The water was up to their chest in the second river. One of the Syrian guys was helping them on their way. As soon as everyone was across the rivers, they started running. At this point, the group consisted of  the 11 Cubans, plus one of the Syrian men.  The others had been left behind.

On their way, the group saw the Turkish military, so they spent about an hour hiding, and then walking through a field. Everytime they would pass the Turkish authorities they would hide. Then, after an hour they were caught by the Turkish military. There were two officers wearing dark camouflage uniforms, armed with rifles. They were caught on a dirt road. The Cubans started to explain in English that they were Cuban, saying that they had nothing, and that the Greeks had forced them to come to Turkey. The officers gave the mother of the child a bottle of water, and a snickers bar to a woman who was diabetic.

They walked down a road for around 5-6km, to a village, a small Turkish village. After this they walked for another 20 minutes and found a patrol coming in another direction. This time it was not military, it was police. It was a police van, with two officers inside. The patrol stopped, and the Cubans again explained what had happened, and the police said to keep walking to find a taxi.

They walked about one more kilometer and met a taxi, which had two young Turkish men inside. They said they wanted to go to Istanbul as that was the only place they knew. In total, they paid 800 euros for the taxi, and the respondent’s families had the money to pay for the taxi when they arrived in Istanbul (the respondents called their families). It took them about 3-4 hours to drive to Istanbul.

 

SECOND ACCOUNT

The following account is of the 25 year old Cuban man who met with the three other Cubans at the second place of detention, which is where their testimonies merge into one.

The 25 year old Cuban went via car from Serbia (after arriving on 23rd October) on 25th October to Macedonia. He then crossed on 27th October into Greece. He travelled with one friend, a 28 year old Cuban woman. They walked from the border of Macedonia, through Greece and arrived in Polykastro on the 27th at night. It took them approximately 4 hours of walking. They used a smuggler, who was Cuban, to guide them remotely.

The respondent and his friend spent the night at a hotel in the morning of 28th October. From Polykastro, they took a bus to Thessaloniki at 12.40pm on the same day. Then they arrived at Thessaloniki, and booked another bus at 2.15pm to go to Athens. After the bus left from Thessaloniki, after two blocks, the bus suddenly stopped. Then, police got on the bus – two in total, dressed in civilian clothes. They did not have anything on them to suggest they were police apart from simply announcing that they were police. These officers asked everyone for documents. But, no one on the bus had visas to be in Greece. 15 people in total – Pakistani, Syrian, and four Cubans – all were forced to get off the bus. No one was left on the bus. The four Cubans (on top of the respondent and his friend, there was another woman and another man in their mid-20’s) and a 32 year old Pakistani man were put into one white van which was outside the bus. The others on the bus were thought to be put in another van, and the others from the bus arrived at the same place they were taken to.

The van with the four Cubans and the Pakistani man had seats inside. The driving of this van was a “little fast” explained the respondent. This van arrived at what was described as a “station”, where “they took all of our things: mobile phone, bags, passports”. The officers at the “station” patted the respondent down to check him, and the other Cuban guy in his group was forced to undress. The officer did not force the respondent to undress, but he did force him to hand across his shoelaces. The officer did not take his money as it was in his pockets – he had 150 €. 

They stayed one night in this “station”. In total there were 7 officers at this “station” – 3 were wearing dark blue uniforms (same as Image 1), and 4 were wearing civilian clothes. The respondent remarked that he remembers seeing the logo of the Greek police on the outside of the building before he entered.

They were taken into a small cell and separated. The women spent a night in this cell, and then the men were taken into a different cell, which was also small. 

The respondent explained that there were already 6-7 Pakistanis in the cell he and the rest of the men were put in. Then, the other people from the cell arrived at the station, making the total number of people in their cell approximately 20 people.

Then, at around 2am (early morning) on 29th October, more people arrived. In total there were about 10 people – Afghan, Pakistani, and one African man. They were put in their cell as well. Throughout their detainment, they were not given water but they were given food. The respondent explained that he didn’t like the look of the food, as it looked “weird”, so he did not eat. This happened twice within the time they were detained. Everyone else ate the food though. In his cell, there were 17-35 years old, including one minor but the respondent was not sure exactly where he was from.

There was a dirty toilet in the corner of the cell, but on the morning of 29th October, one of the officers in the “station” came in to clean it. There was a TV in this place of detention – the “station” – and he is sure that they left at 3pm in the afternoon, as the time was displayed on the TV. 

All of the people in his cell, approximately 30 people now including everyone who was brought in overnight, were put into one van which was white in colour. The respondent explained that he was the first one in the van, and the two Cuban women and the other Cuban man were the last to be loaded into the van.

It took about 3 hours until they arrived at the next location, arriving at about 6pm on 29th October. This driving “was worse than the first time. The driving was super fast” explained the respondent. Inside the van on the left hand side, there was a small bench, where the last four people who got into the van sat there.

They arrived at the next station, which is eventually where they linked up with the group of 3 Cuban men. When they arrived, the officers put most of the people in another van, but four could not fit inside the van – including the respondent and the respondent’s female companion, so they stayed one night at the detention site. This four then met the group of 3 Cubans on 30th October at about 5pm, when about 25-30 people arrived. The respondent explained that they did not have access to food or water at this place of detention. [see the FIRST ACCOUNT for the continuation of the testimony after they meet in the second detention centre]

Hola