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Beaten, Robbed, Set Upon by Dogs: Welcome to Europe

Last month, Oxfam documented systematic human rights abuses by police in Bulgaria targeting refugees passing through the country. VICE News traveled to Serbia to hear firsthand accounts.

by Oscar Webb
Dec 8 2015, 12:40pm

Imagen por Oscar Webb

"They hit us mercilessly with branches from trees... and then they robbed us. I remember it clearly."

Afghani Khalid Ahmadi recounted in precise detail the moment he says Bulgarian police ambushed him and others in a forest at night, beating them and stealing their money and mobile phones.

"It comes back to me often," he said, holding back tears. "When they beat me I was extremely frightened and I almost gave up on life. If we had died it would have been better."

Khalid is one of at least 100 refugees and migrants who are entering eastern Europe across the Turkish-Bulgarian border every day.

Having already undertaken a long, arduous, and dangerous journey, for many the safe haven they hoped to find in Europe is far from the reality.

Last month international NGO Oxfam documented extensive violence and extortion of refugees carried out by Bulgarian police in the border region where Khalid says he was attacked.

Interviewing one hundred refugees who'd made the journey, Oxfam concluded that systematic human rights abuses — robberies, beatings and illegal "pushbacks" (deportations) to Turkey — were being carried out by Bulgarian police on a daily basis. "All interviewees, except those who had not had any contact with the police, reported ill-treatment in Bulgaria," it said in its report.

Last week the British Prime Minister David Cameron praised Bulgaria's "strong external borders" during a visit to the country.

"They have got a land border with Turkey that they protect and I think there are real lessons to be learned here about [how] if you give it the priority you can get it done," said the British leader while inspecting part of the border fence the country is building on its Turkish border. "We should continue to support them with the important work they do."

On the same day Cameron made these comments, VICE News interviewed refugees who had experienced Bulgaria's border policy firsthand.

In Dimitrovgrad, a Serbian town on the Bulgarian-Serbian border, where many who have traveled through Bulgaria end up, refugees told graphic and detailed stories of beatings and robberies by Bulgarian police. Refugees walk around the town with black eyes, bruises on their legs and teeth marks from where dogs have bitten them.

Some show graphic photos of their friends who had allegedly been attacked even more severely by police: broken noses, black and blue eyes; infected and festering wounds from dog bites. These are three individuals' stories.

* * *

Hamidollah Mohammad Ghaher, 25, a policeman from Kapisa province, Afghanistan.

Photo by Oscar Webb

The first time I tried to enter Bulgaria was at the beginning of November. There were about thirty of us. We were taken in a van by the people smuggler to the Turkish-Bulgarian border from Istanbul. We walked through the Bulgarian forest for half a day; it was very cold and mountainous.

We were walking at night when we heard someone shout the word "Police!" and we ran; we didn't know if they were police or thieves. Some of them had pulled out their guns. They sent dogs after us and I saw other people around me get bitten in the leg and brought to the ground. They shouted "Stop! Stop!" but I didn't understand what else they were saying.

I knelt down on the ground and surrendered, the police and dogs being too close to me for me to get away; other men did run off into the forest, but the police caught them. I was in a kneeling position, surrendering, on the ground, other men doing the same, and the police started kicking us. Then they stripped our clothes off and searched us. Anything they could get their hands on they took; they took my phone, all of my money which was about $300, my shoes, my sweater. I was left in my underwear and my T-shirt. The police called a van and pushed us in — they drove us for two or three hours and then told us to get out and pointed in one direction — we walked for another one or two hours and reached a Turkish town near the border.

On the second attempt, we walked for two days and two nights but were discovered by the police. There were about three or four police officers who spotted us. There was nowhere to run and they had dogs so I surrendered. They pushed me to the ground, kicked me. They shouted at us but I didn't understand what they said. They spat at us and kicked us in the head. They were hitting people with a stick. After the beating, they took everything we had. The first time I'd tried to hide my possessions from them but this time I just handed them over — my mobile phone and about $100. Other people were carrying $200 or $300, which was taken.

The third time, we walked through the forest for two nights and one day; we found our driver on a road in the forest and were taken to Sofia.

It's been a very tough journey and I didn't know what would happen along the way. I've changed my mind: I wish I hadn't started this journey.

Farman Straz, 18, a student from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Photo by Oscar Webb

I left Afghanistan one month ago. I made two attempts to get into Bulgaria from Turkey and the second was successful.

The first time, we tried to go to Bulgaria, we took a car from Istanbul to the border. We walked in the forest for five days and four nights. The weather was very cold. We slept in the forest without any tents. There were 35 people in my group.

After five days, we reached a track in the forest and started walking along it but the police drove up to us. There were four of them in one car. They shouted "Stop! Sit down there!" and everyone sat down; then they said to us one by one, "Come here." I stood up and walked to the policemen; one of them said "Give me your money, give me your mobile phone," and after I didn't, he hit me with his baton. Then they took our clothes off and searched us. They took everything I had; my mobile phone, my money, even the food and drinks we were carrying. They took €50 off of me; other people had €100 or €200 taken. After they'd searched everyone like this, they put us in a police van. They drove us back to the Turkish border, pushed us out of the van and pointed in the direction we should walk.

Five days later, we tried again, walking for four days. This time, we managed to avoid the police and we met a car in the forest that drove us to Sofia. It was a very hard and upsetting journey.

Khalid Ahmadi, 24, a builder from Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan.

Photo by Oscar Webb

One night about a week ago, we took a car to the Turkish-Bulgarian border from Istanbul. There were eighteen of us. Starting at about midnight, we walked in the dark in the forest. After six hours of very tough walking, we approached a dirt track, which ran through the forest, we heard gun shots and it sounded very close. We were terrified so we stopped walking. The police were hiding and waiting for us. They jumped out from behind trees with flashlights. They were shouting but we didn't understand them. They ran up to us and attacked us, hitting us mercilessly with branches from trees — thick branches, about 3 inches in diameter. They made us take off our trousers and made us lie on the ground. One by one, they stood us up and they did a full body search, taking our money — they took around $400 from me — mobile phones and anything else they could find. Once I'd been searched, I got kicked to the ground, my head hitting rocks, which is why I have scars on my face. They continued beating people after they'd been searched, whilst we were lying on the ground. They hit me on my legs and on my back. I was crying. Everyone was crying. There were two police vans and about a dozen police officers.

After the beating, the police gave us our clothes back and told us to get into one of their vans and we were driven back to near the Turkish border. The police kicked and pushed us out of the van 100 meters away from the Turkish border. It was clearly marked, and they ordered us over it. We walked for about fifteen minutes into a Turkish town, where we took a taxi back to Istanbul.

Two days later, we again took the car to the border for six hours. We walked for one full night and rested the next day and then we started walking again at 4pm as it started to get dark. After walking until around midnight, a van arrived and took us out of the forest to Sofia. I arrived in Serbia yesterday.

"It comes back to me often. When they beat me I was extremely frightened and I almost gave up on life. If we had died it would have been better."

Follow Oscar Webb on Twitter: @owebb

Translation by Pouya Nayebi

Tagged:
VICE News
refugees
migrants
Bulgaria
Serbia
HUMAN RIGHTS
Europe Refugee Crisis
europe migrant crisis