Volunteer Diaries: Pushbacks and Other Horror Stories

"Human rights are only given to you if you are first recognized as human."

Artwork: Abdulazez Dukhan

A very detailed report on the human rights abuses occurring at Europe’s borders has been released by a collective of organizations, investigative journalists, and human rights defenders. Please read this report and know that I may be your one degree of separation from this very real horror story that seems to have come from a dystopian novel.


I’ve witnessed the power of this network and have participated in collecting official and unofficial testimonies from those who have been subjected to this absolutely horrifying cruelty. For the past year, I have become an intimate observer of this alarming act, residing in Istanbul and volunteering with local communities to try and better understand their experiences along the migratory pathway. I have seen the extent of this issue firsthand. It is the stuff of nightmares.


Pushbacks went from a peripheral issue - almost a casual occurrence as people tried to make their way towards Europe - to a regular, blindingly brutal event where manslaughter is common yet absolutely no accountability is given. Justice seemingly has no place here.


"You can hear the blows before you can see them. The noise of blunt objects striking arms, legs and backs filters through the thick shrubbery on the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. People screaming in pain, gasping and whimpering.
Powerful men in dark uniforms are standing on the Croatian side of the border on this hot June day. They are battering Afghans and Pakistanis who have come to Europe to apply for asylum. All of the men are wearing balaclavas; one of them has also donned black sunglasses. Their uniforms bear no insignia to ensure that they are completely unrecognizable. They are completely unaware that just a few meters away, hiding behind just a couple of bushes and trees, two reporters are filming their every move.
The videos document how these masked men chase 22 refugees out of the European Union, forcing them back into Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of the masked men swings again and again with his club, aiming at the legs of the migrants and making them stumble into the chest-deep border river. He then raises his arm in a threatening gesture and yells: 'Go! Go to Bosnia!'"

Testimonies are carefully collected and incident reports are cross-checked with forensic reconstruction by incredibly skilled and experienced teams. They are followed up on or done in tandem with investigative reporting and testimonies. While many people involved in this type of work are being criminalized for ridiculous charges including espionage and spilling state secrets, none of this is top-secret information. I learn about many border violence incidents from TikTok and Twitter.


Governments are understandably threatened by the increasing vigilance of researchers, humanitarians, and journalists who document border violence, and many of them do so in secret, always looking over their shoulder out of fear of retaliation from a shamed state.


But behind all of this- behind the forensic architecture and the strategic litigation, behind the tedious testimonies, and reports and constant advocacy… we are humans.


Most of the testimonies and stories that I collect are never well-documented enough for filing as a complaint or a court case, but I hold them with equal weight and importance. These are real stories of real human beings. This is our reality.


“The police were beating us and beating anyone with their phone or money twice as badly so we threw them into the woods so they wouldn’t hurt us.”


“They put us in the back of a jeep and drove for a long time with no water. It was so hot two guys fainted.”


“They took all of our money and they searched the women and in their private parts.”

“They beat everyone, they even beat a young boy who was traveling alone.”


“We were scared that they would see us so we ran into the woods and hid. Unfortunately they found us, they beat us and took our phones. They tore up our passports in front of us. That night they tied our hands and put us on a boat. They took us into the ocean and beat us until we got into life rafts then pushed us back to Turkey.”


“They took us to the edge of the river and told us to swim. They started beating us so we had no choice but to go. I could hear them screaming that they could not swim. I could hear them screaming that they were drowning. When we got to the other side of the river, four were missing.”


“Sister they took us and threw us in a big cell but there were two women that they brought to a different room. We heard them screaming and when they were brought back into the big cell with us, they didn’t even look at us.”


I’ve heard stories of invasive searches that are sexual torture. I myself experienced sexual harassment as an intimidation tactic by authorities while in police custody.


I’ve seen people left with physical disabilities from these pushbacks. I’ve seen massive bruises blossoming across entire bodies, a roadmap of the brutality of these twisted people who are stupid enough to think that they are instruments of justice.


I’ve spent sleepless nights tossing and turning when friends go offline for too long and you are left to wonder if they are one of the bodies found twisted in the brambles of rivers up the Balkans or alone under the stars in some farmers field.


I’ve seen people left with invisible scars when they are witness to this type of inhumanity. Their eyes are void except for an unfathomable amount of pain.


And these stories… these stories haunt me. They are vivid and heavy. The details we need to collect are ripe with grief. The trauma and agony are tangible. In my time as a humanitarian and a nurse I have seen some crazy calamities, but they pale in comparison to the things we see from borders. I will never be able to adequately describe the horror.


After every testimony, I cry. Sometimes I feel ill for days. My own trauma is triggered relentlessly but I do this anyway because at minimum, I want to hold the space that the victims of this brutality deserve at a human level if structural violence absolutely crushes them at a systemic level.


We don’t give up. We won’t be deterred by threats and allegations and criminalization. We know what is right and we fight for it regardless, but ultimately, the message is clear:

The authorities are given more power and trust in this system even if it’s a façade. This is not an implementation of policy so much as it’s an abject denial of people’s humanity.

Every occasion where I have spoken the truth even if my voice shakes. The laundry list of times I’ve been a respectful rule-follower. My reputation for upholding moral values like veracity and doing no harm. Every time I’ve healed wounds rather than inflicted them. My track record for exposing human rights abuses rather than committing them. My word, my diligence, my adamant insistence on being guided by justice and morality… it means nothing. My truth. My existence. It means nothing.


That is why pieces like this are so important. This hard evidence must continue to be produced and it must be given the validity it warrants.


This border brutality is not unique to EU borders and fortress Europe, but this does hold a special irony when the very institution of the European Union likes to boast its delusional dedication to upholding human rights.

For who?


Human rights are only given to you if you are first recognized as human. Throughout the centuries of humanity, we have yet to clear that hurdle.

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