By Karolina Augustová and Jack Sapoch (No Name Kitchen)

Sprawled across a mud field of plastic tents and rubbish stands the Trnovi camp in north-western  Bosnia. Situated in Velika Kladuša, a small city which straddles the Croatian border, this camp is  home for around 400 people on the move who temporarily settled there while trying to transit  through Bosnia towards Western Europe. Around 200 more reside in squats around the town.  

Four men from Pakistan recently arrived back from another game; another attempt to cross the  Bosnian-Croatian border and get closer to their dream of a safe life in Europe. They are exhausted,  covering their injuries by a bandage after another violent push-back to Bosnia by the Croatian  border patrols. Like hundreds of other victims of border violence, which our team at No Name  Kitchen has interviewed over the last six months, this group of men was willing to share with us  their story in the hopes of raising awareness about the brutality of the EU’s external borders: 

“Yesterday, we got caught on the Slovenian-Croatian border. Croatian police caught us and  started beating us, kicking us, punching us. They were making fun of us, laughing at us. I am  completely confused why they were beating us. I understand that we are illegal, we are  refugees, we are using their borders, and their land. But we don’t want to hurt anyone. I  don’t know why they are beating us. Why the European Union does not take any action? Why  do they allow them to beat us? This is history that the whole world is witnessing. Refugees  have been fleeing their countries for a long time, that is not a big deal. We are facing  problems in our country, we cannot stay and wait for our death there” (Ferdous*, Pakistan). 

Dozens of injured and tired people come back from the Croatian border to Velika Kladuša each  day. People who are asking for their right to claim asylum in the EU land are not only beaten but  also have all of their possessions taken; money, mobile phones, and passports. They come back to  the precarious life in the field camp with nothing, confused and disappointed about human rights  in Europe. Still, many leave the next day to try another game. While the winter is approaching,  they worry that if they do not reach sanctuary in Europe now, they will get stranded in Bosnia  under plastic sheet shelters and inside of abandoned houses, in minus zero temperatures, for the entire winter. The Croatian border authorities react with even more systematic and extreme  violent practices to the increasing attempts to cross. 

During the last few weeks, several groups who returned to Bosnia, reported that instead of “just”  being beaten and pushed back, they experienced a long torture perpetuated by the special  Croatian border forces clad in black clothes and balaclava masks. After being caught in Croatia,  people are contained for hours in fast-driven vans with lack of oxygen which causes many to  vomit. When they arrive to remote border areas late at night, the police open a van door and point  torches into their eyes to make the people blind.

Then, one by one, the officers take them outside  and tell them to run through a forest where they had set up “traps”; ropes across which people  fell over. Others report water deliberately dumped on the road from barrels, designed to make  individuals slip and fall. Once a person falls, officers physically attack the individual with batons,  kicks and punches on the body, head, and face. We have been told that some of the physical attacks  take several minutes, until the person’s bones are broken or their face bleeds. In the end, many  are pushed down a hill or into a river while being shouted at to go run back to Bosnia and being  threatened by gun shots in the air. People then try to walk with broken legs, arms, and open  wounds back to the makeshift camp, where they often struggle to reach adequate medical care. 

Witnessing a pushback 

The Croatian authorities have been successfully denying the allegations of police violence and  point to a lack of evidence corroborating these stories. Although hundreds of testimonies have  been collected from victims of violent pushbacks at the hands of the Croatian border police,  secondary witnesses remain quite rare and the denial of these crimes persists. Croatian border  police damage and steal the phones of those being attacked to ensure that no violence can be  captured on camera and no evidence is collected. Most push-backs happen night, along sparsely  populated sections of the Croatian-Bosnian border, so that this violence is not witnessed. In this  way, audio and visual recordings are elusive. Due to the clandestine nature of these crimes a  warped sense of erasure persists for victims of border violence. 

This changed this past week after an unaccompanied minor from Syria returned to Velika Kladuša with a video recording of a push-back in action. Khalid, (name changed to protect anonymity) had  left some days prior with a group of four other people with the intention of crossing the Croatian  border and continuing towards Italy. Unintentionally, he stumbled upon the violent pushback of  two groups of men which he proceeded to document, step-by-step, on his smartphone. Upon  returning, he sat down with a No Name Kitchen volunteer and explained what he saw:  

“We go someplace, down the mountain, we can’t see anything and someone tells us that we  have to go back. Like go up the mountain to see. We were waiting and saw a [police] car go  and come back, go and come back. For one hour we were stay, no move…. It called a second  car, they meet each other and there is a woman. Police Croatia. This car is go and come back  and some police car is called the other car to come back. This car comes back and they meet  each other and there is some people inside the other car.  

They open the car, go out one by one. Just one and close the door, they beat him so much,  after, leave him. And second, out, one by one, one and close the door, not the whole group,  one by one. Twelve people in the car. There is a third car that is come, four people from  Algeria is inside. Same thing, one and close the car, beat, beat, beat, beat, so hard. And leave  him. 

They open the gun and take it in the air to make them scared” (Khalid, Syria). The cries of the men being beaten stuck with Khalid. In his own words: 

“In my life, I have never heard a voice so mad, they screamed like this. In my life” (Khalid,  Syria). 

A No Name Kitchen volunteer later spoke to one of the men from the second group of people  pushed back who echoed the same point’s from Khalid’s story: 

“[They] take the first one, [I was] the first one, and then close the door. And they start the  beating. Beat you and beat you” (Ahmed, Algeria). 

After watching these beatings, Khalid’s group waited for the police to leave before calling out to  the injured men. Thereafter, they washed out the men’s wound with water and provided them  with food. From there, they walked back to the relative safety of Velika Kladuša 

Khalid later described the terror he felt witnessing this event and reflecting on his own status as  a refugee pursuing asylum in Europe: 

“[I felt] very scared. Too many police, and disappoint, and morale down, and we can’t cross  the border…It’s too many police…and it’s beating so much and make too many people  bleeding. It’s not simple beat. It’s like some people had destroyed heads” (Khalid, Syria). 

Brutal border deterrence is against the law 

The brutal practices of the Croatian police are against international laws and directives. Firstly,  the beating and deportation of all people on the move, both irregular migrants and asylum  seekers, is against the prohibition of collective expulsion (Article 4 Protocol 4 ECHR), and the  absolute prohibition of torture and non-humane or degrading treatment or punishment (Article  3 ECHR). Secondly, according to the EU Directive on Asylum Procedures (2005/85/EC), all 

people on the move are entitled to information about asylum, translation assistance, the ability  to present their case to a competent authority, notification of the outcome, and the right to appeal  a negative decision (1). But most importantly, viewing people searching safety as mere illegal  numbers and dangerous bodies pushes them to a grey zone. Within this grey zone, they are  stripped of the right to have rights, resulting in their humiliation without legal consequence,  leaving perpetrators unrecognisable and unpunished. Thousands of lives are being slowly  destroyed while the EU community has been silently overlooking violent push-backs and denying  any responsibility: 

“This is shame for the Croatian Government, this is not a professional action to hit refugees,  beating them to their mouth, eyes, hands, breaking our mobile phones. We are shocked why  no one is taking action against the Croatian police who is taking our money, beating all of  us; men, women, children and old people. They don’t care, they just beat and push back  everyone because we are illegal people. This is illegal, and the European Union should take  an action against the Croatian police” (Ferdous, Pakistan)

Violent consequences of the violent borders 

Pushing those asking for asylum from the borders has been framed by the perpetrators of these  acts as a mean of protecting EU inner citizens from dangerous “terrorists” and “criminals”.  However, the closure of the borders and the denial of legal pathways push people to irregular  practices of transit and a reliance on human smugglers. Moreover, it increases the likelihood of  other violent behavioural patterns. Several men from Syria pointed out to us that they refuse to  be again brutally attacked at the border while fleeing the war conflict. For this reason, they are  considering returning to their homeland, where they have no other option of survival than to join  army service for 8 years and become part of the violent governmental programmes: 

“Croatia [treats] me like I am dangerous, but I am not dangerous. But if I go back to Syria, I  will have to join Assad’s army and yes, I will be made dangerous” (Abdula, Syria).

The border crossing game is no longer only the matter of violence and criminalisation of people,  but also the question of life and death. One week ago, a young man from Iraq reported to us that  their older friend died of a heart attack while crossing the mountains in Croatia. A few days later,  another group from Iraq, including one family with two small children, told us that he saw a man  drowned while trying to cross a river inside of Croatia: 

“The water took him. When we were caught by the Croatian police, I told them that this  Syrian man died in the forest. They only said that this was not their problem but our  problem(Majid, Iraq). 

For this reason, we have to ask here again: what is more dangerous? People fleeing poverty and  conflict, or a continentally militarised border? This question faces us daily while seeing the crying  eyes and open wounds of people coming back from the border, hearing screams and gun shooting  from the border, and seeing the lights of a helicopter surveilling the border space above the camp  in Velika Kladuša. 

*All names have been changed to secure anonymity of those providing the testimonies of police  brutality.