Refugee Testimony in Northern Serbia

“Nobody asked if we were okay, if we had been beaten. All our clothes were ripped, and we slept outside. The next day we walked back to Subotica.”

AntiNote: Over the last few years of the border crisis we have seen repeated instances of the same galling phenomenon: narratives being dismissed out of hand because the sources are refugee “rumor-mills” or activists “with an agenda,” only to be seized upon for spectacle’s sake once the original claims are “confirmed” by an aid organization or media outlet of relative stature.

This happened, for example, with the story of Bulgarian migrant hunters last year, and happens routinely with news of Assadist atrocities in Syria. It has also happened with all reports of police abuse and torture of refugees in places like Bulgaria and, in this case, Hungary. Reports like those to follow had been circulating among refugees and activists in the region for months before international NGOs or media decided there was anything to investigate (and note that the abuses continue despite the glancing attention last year; these interviews are from last month).

This reveals something unpleasant about the state of legacy journalism in the West, and about our societies more generally: about who we believe—who we regard as trustworthy—and why. Where a person or institution comes down on this question is really paramount. For us in the Antidote Writers Collective, it is not a difficult choice. We believe refugees and we believe activists—often far more, indeed, than we believe legacy media, which has its own kinds of rumor-mills, and its own kind of agenda. As we have been doing since late 2013, we are publishing and will publish the words and testimonies of the people on the ground, in the streets and squares, grinding it out in the countryside, living the shit.

That’s enough of that (nothing like talking over people while proclaiming you give them a voice). Listen to these Pakistani refugees in Subotica, Serbia. Believe them—and trust us, they are not the only ones. The violence they describe is systemic. The full extent of it has yet to be assessed. It will be, though, and shame on anyone who ignored, denied, obscured, or excused it. Not to mention: fire and flames to the fascists who are carrying it out.

Republished from Political Critique with the permission of the author. Lightly edited for clarity. Thanks and solidarity also to the good folks at Fresh Response in Serbia.


Migrants Provide Testimony on Hungarian Police Brutality
by Michal Borkiewicz for Krytyka Polityczna – International Edition
23 February 2017 (original post)

Migrants attempting to cross the border into Hungary are experiencing mass violations of their human rights at the hands of brutal Hungarian police. An investigative team conducted interviews with several migrants who made such attempts, which further reveal Serbian police’s refusal to investigate such crimes.

Near the Serbian-Hungarian border, in forests, abandoned buildings, and railway sidings, reside refugees who have been denied any kind of support. These refugees are mainly single men, attempting to gain entry into Hungary. Of course, these attempts are illegal; they have practically no chance of securing legal refuge.

Those who have no strength or means of livelihood could, theoretically, try and register themselves in Belgrade, 200 kilometers from the border. However, once there, they encounter chants of “Go home!” Such speech has materialized on more than one occasion, and is even applied to the ill and injured, who continue to increase in numbers. People are in such a state of desperation that they attempt to cross the border multiple times, persisting until they finally succeed.

By doing so, they risk their health—and even their life. Just a few days ago, yet another Afghani man died when ice covering a river suddenly gave way beneath him during his attempt to cross. Despite such dangers, refugees repeat these wilderness attempts many times. And even if they do succeed, a new Hungarian law stipulates that those captured within eight kilometers of the border are to be treated as though they have not yet entered Hungary. In practicality, of course, this “transit zone,” which Human Rights Watch refers to as a “legal fiction,” extends to the border of Austria.

Push-backs”—turning people away without having established how they came to the border and denying them all possibility of entry—contravene international laws which govern Hungary: the Geneva Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as laws that apply to the Schengen Area.

And the police are absurdly brutal—people are beaten, bitten by dogs, stripped naked and sprayed with cold water. The police take their clothes, insult them, spit on them, and spray them with gas, even if they have not shown resistance towards the authorities. If they do resist, it is because they have no choice.

Unfortunately, there is currently no evidence other than the testimonies of those who have been harmed. Due to their phones being destroyed and people being stripped and searched, it is virtually impossible to obtain any reliable recording. Certain records do abound, however. After several hours of torture and degradation, the final stage is usually reached: before pushing detainees back into the direction of Serbia, the police films each one reading a “confession.” They receive a script in their native language, which they must read in front of a camera. It goes, more or less, like this: “I illegally entered the territory of Hungary and did not follow the commands of the authorities.” If anyone does not read this script, they are once again beaten or sprayed with gas.

Fresh Response, an informal organization which helps refugees along the border, is making records of the testimonies provided by the refugees. Here are a few examples of these testimonies.

R., 30
Date of interview: 21 January 2017
Location of interview: ‘Jungle’ Subotica
Interview conducted in English and Urdu

They crammed us in the luggage space, hitting and pushing us in order to do so, as there was not enough space.

On Friday, 13 January I crossed the Hungarian border near the Horgoš crossing. There were 55 of us in the group at the beginning, and we all crossed over onto the Hungarian side. Then we separated, and twelve of us, including myself, got caught by the Hungarian police about two kilometers from the border fence. Four policemen approached us in a marked police car. They had two dogs with them. The first thing they did was spray our eyes with gas so we couldn’t see clearly. I tried so hard to open my eyes and remember their faces or numbers on their uniforms, but the gas made it impossible. I can only say that they were young men, ages 20 to 22, and that their uniforms were blue. They asked about our nationality and started shouting, “No Hungary for you!” and calling us terrorists, Taliban, etcetera.

Meanwhile two other police cars came with eight more men and four dogs. I remember one of them was an older, fat man. They had us all sit in a puddle, knee deep. One of us, a thirteen-year-old boy, couldn’t stop crying because of the gas so they moved him from the front to the back of the line, so he was sitting next to me. He kept crying and they were laughing at him and hitting him with police batons saying, “Shut up! Shut up!” He was the youngest of us, but there were three other minors in the group.

The policemen ordered us to put our hands up and open our jackets so they could hit us in the ribs and stomach. Some of them were using plastic batons; the rest were armed with metal ones. Afterwards they searched us, one man at a time, while the rest of us remained sitting in water. They had each of us stand up so they could remove our warm clothing, jackets, gloves, hats, trousers (some of us were wearing more than one pair). They destroyed the dinars they found on us and put our euros in their pockets. They smashed our phones on the ground.

During the search we had to hold our hands up in the air in the strong, cold wind. After the search was done they still had us sitting in the puddle, but now ordered us to put our hands on the next person’s shoulders, and started hitting us on our ribs with police batons. One of the policeman stood on B.’s shoulders and started laughing and jumping on him. Then they told us to stand up but keep the line, and released the dogs on us from the right side. When some of us tried to move to run away from the dogs they were beaten again and forced back to the “line.” They kept laughing and shouting, “Keep the line, keep the line!”

Then they called the dogs off, but told us to remain in line. They went behind us so we couldn’t see them and started tapping us on the shoulders. Anytime one of us turned around to look at them, the policeman would say: Hello! and spray tear gas in our eyes again. They didn’t let us clean our faces, saying that they should stay that way. Afterwards they took us to the police van, hitting our calves with batons as we were walking. They didn’t let us enter the part of the van meant for transporting people, instead they crammed us in the luggage space, hitting and pushing us in order to do so, as there was not enough space for twelve people there.

They took our backpacks out, threw away all the water and food they found. Hard fruits such as apples and oranges were thrown in our faces. Then we were transported to the border gate. There was not enough space to sit so we had to stand all the way. Another Hungarian policeman came with keys to open the gate but then the older military man (different uniform) approached us telling the rest to wait. He took out his can of gas and sprayed our faces again. Then the policeman took pictures of us, ordering us to open our eyes. As we couldn’t do so because of the tear gas, they started hitting us again, forcing us to look into the camera.

Then they brought us to the fence, and said, “This is your language, read!” There was a sign on the border fence which we were forced to read aloud, saying that we didn’t experience any physical or verbal abuse from Hungarian authorities. They recorded each of us reading it. While we were saying that we hadn’t experienced any abuse, the dogs were released on us again, just circling around our legs, below the point where the camera could see them. Then they let us through the fence and ordered us to go back to Serbia. There was no Serbian police on the other side.

The whole thing lasted around two hours, as we got caught at seven p.m. and reached the gas station in Horgoš at nine-thirty p.m.

A., 14
Date of interview: 21 January 2017
Location of interview: Brick factory, Subotica
Interview conducted in Urdu

Every time I tried to look at them they would hit me in the head. They made us look down. They said we must stay like this. They said, “Don’t look up!” They were hitting us very hard.

I crossed the Hungarian border with forty other people [same group as R.]. I don’t remember the name of the place, I don’t remember the date. Behind the border fence we started walking very fast for about five minutes. Then me and eleven others sat down, while the remaining 28 walked ahead.

Between twelve and fourteen police officers arrived; some by car, some on foot. They had flashlights and were looking for us. We stood up and they came at us, started kicking us and hitting us on the ribs with police batons. I don’t know what the batons were made of but they were black, heavy, and very hard. Then the police made us walk us away from the dry ground we had been sitting on, and forced us to sit in a big puddle of water, about two inches deep. They told us to put our hands up in the air and came running at us, hitting us on our heads with batons. They made us take off our hats and gloves. When my hands got cold I tried to put them in my pockets but they didn’t let me. They were shouting, “Take your hands out!” and made me unzip my jacket. They emptied our pockets and destroyed our phones by smashing them on the ground with their heels.

We were still sitting down in the puddle when they came behind each of us, saying, “Hello, my friend.” When we turned to look at them, we were sprayed in the eyes. Then one of them, a fat man with a beard and mustache, let the dogs loose on us. He was always with a dog between his legs. The dogs were climbing and clawing on us.

Then police started hitting us with batons again. They hit me twice in the back, twice in the head and on my fingers. There were other policemen I didn’t get to see. When they sprayed me my head went down. Afterwards, every time I tried to look at them they would hit me in the head. They made us look down like this [lowers his head]. They said we must stay like this. They said, “Don’t look up!” They were hitting us very hard.

They made us sit in the water for about one and a half hours. Afterwards they put us in the police van, a regular marked one with sirens on top. There was a small area separated with a net, and they made us get in there. On the other side of the net they had dogs. They use batons to get us in as there was not enough space. One of us stood outside, he couldn’t get in on his own, but they forced him inside by pushing and hitting. Then they closed the door and drove us to the border gate.

When we got out they made us stand in a line again. A new man arrived and started spraying us; he was wearing a different type of uniform with something black and white on it. It was like an army uniform. The rest of them had dark blue uniforms. This spray was different than the first one. It made my eyes hurt. The first one they’d used made me cough and want to vomit. I was coughing a lot. I was in the front of the line when they started spraying us.

They asked why we tried to cross the border. They made a video of me. I was told to read aloud a statement that was on a hook on the border gate while they filmed me. After I finished reading, one of the policemen pushed me to the side. When we all had all read the statement, they opened the gate and said, “Go!” We walked back and arrived at the gas station around nine-thirty.

S., 19
Date of interview: 22 January 2017
Location of interview: ‘Jungle’ Subotica
Interview conducted in Urdu

In my whole life I’ve never been that scared. I’ve never been beaten this way, and I’ve never seen anyone beaten this way.

About one week ago, I crossed the Hungarian border near Bački Breg. It was very cold that night, but it wasn’t snowing. We went before the snow. I was in a group of 42-45 people. There were three or four minors among us and five to ten elderly people. It was after midnight when the fence got cut and we got through. We were still in the first jungle when we looked back and saw a police car about one kilometer behind us, right in the spot where the fence has been cut. The police saw that. We carried on walking for about one hour, then we saw a main road in front of us. There were a lot of houses alongside it and people living there put their lights on to see who is passing by.

There was more jungle on the other side of the road. We saw police cars there, with their lights on. We saw them from quite far ahead. Policemen were walking through the jungle with their flashlights and we realized they were looking for us. Meanwhile a helicopter came as well. Somebody said we need to hide so we went to the only place we could do that, a field next to the road. They were looking for us for 20 or 25 minutes. A lot of them, thirty or forty people. The helicopter flew above us and they saw us in its light. It flew around one more time to see if there was anyone else around, and then flew away.

Five minutes later the police came to us. We were all sitting. I thought that if I were in the middle of the group I won’t get beaten as badly as people on the outside. I got up and moved to the middle. The policemen came to us and started shouting really loudly. Horrible screams and shouts that scared us. Every one of them had a stick, and they went around hitting all the refugees not once, not twice, but numerous times. They were kicking us at the same time. We were all sitting at that point and they kept hitting and kicking us for fifteen or twenty minutes. Some of us got hit so bad that they kept crying very, very loudly. They’d been beaten so badly.

First they were hitting us all in the group. After that they started doing it individually. You would think that they wouldn’t hit the elderly and the minors, but they hit them just as much. They didn’t even bother to see who was older and who was younger, they just started hitting us right away.

There was one man. He wasn’t in our group, they caught him separately. They were beating him for thirty minutes. They were asking, “Where is the rest of your group?” and he didn’t know. They grabbed him and smashed his head against the ground, breaking his teeth. Blood was coming out of his ears and from his nose. His mouth was cut where the teeth broke.

When they dropped us in Serbia he was done, he couldn’t move. He just lay down on the ground. We carried him to the Horgoš transit zone and they let him stay the night there.

The policemen were humiliating us and laughing at us. They were beating us and joking while doing it. They were saying, “Fuck you! Fuck Muslims! Muslims are animals!” They put us all in a line and made us sit down. They were asking each of us where we were from. During this they were still hitting us. It didn’t matter if you were in the beginning or in the middle of the line. Whenever they felt like hitting you they would hit you. If one of us was sitting in a different way or if the line wasn’t straight they would drag them out of the line they would beat them and push them back saying, “Sit straight!” In my whole life I’ve never been that scared. I’ve never been beaten this way, and I’ve never seen anyone beaten this way.

They started searching through our belongings. They looked in our jackets. They threw our bags on the ground and used their feet to rummage through them, to see what we’ve got. They kicked everything out, then said, “Pack your bags up again!” They gave us only few seconds to do that; when somebody wasn’t fast enough they would hit them again, saying, “Faster!” They made us take our clothes off during that time, and they were still beating us.

Then they made us sit again, and gave us our clothes back. They brought a police van around. There was a small sitting compartment inside and they made us sit in there. They took us back to Horgoš and got us out of the van. There was a police dog in front of the door and every time somebody would get out the dog would jump on them, barking and scaring them. They made us stand in a line again, and one of the policemen held a can of gas. Then we saw a police car coming from the Serbian side, so he didn’t use it. The car stood at the border on the Serbian side.

They gave us a paper and asked which language we speak. We were made to read aloud: “We crossed the Hungarian border illegally.” We were told that we can go legally through a transit zone and that if we experienced any violence we can report it, but there was no number or information on how we can do that. They were filming us as we were reading.

Afterwards they deported us. The sun had risen when we entered Serbia, that’s how long they’d spent with us. The Serbian police didn’t ask us if we got beaten. In the early days they used to ask us, but now they don’t anymore. They pointed us in the direction of Horgoš. We tried to speak to them but they just told us to go. Nobody asks us. Nobody wants to listen to us.

B. A., 47
Date of interview: 23 January 2017
Location of interview: ‘Jungle’ Subotica
Interview conducted in Urdu

They made us take our clothes off, and searched our pockets and our things. When we tried to take our clothes back, they kicked us.

About one week ago I crossed the Hungarian border. It was near Bački Breg, sometime around midnight. We were between 30 and 35 people [same group as S.], there were four or five minors and ten to fifteen people my age and older. We got through in the first try and we kept on walking for about two hours. We saw a helicopter above us, it had a flashing light and they saw us. There were about forty police officers and there were some women with them (they kicked us as well). We hid in an apple orchard between the trees but they found us. When they caught us, they didn’t say anything, just started hitting us. They didn’t ask any questions beforehand. They were beating us for half an hour. Sometimes they were hitting us with black batons, sometimes kicking us.

I got kicked right in the stomach. There was a tall man, he was hitting us the most. They had three or four dogs, and were using them to scare us, releasing them on us and pulling them back. They made us take our clothes off, and searched our pockets and our things. Anything that was in our bags, they kicked it out. When we tried to take our clothes back, they kicked us. Out of fear, we just left our things there.

Then they took us to the van and forced us in by kicking us and hitting us with batons on our shoulders and backs. They took us to the border and got us out of the van. They were grabbing us and pulling us out. They were still hitting and slapping us. They made us stand in a line again at the border and took individual pictures of our faces. Four or five of us had to read a paper, but I wasn’t one of them. The paper said, “You came illegally, why did you come illegally?”

They opened the gate and kicked us out or pushed us out by grabbing us by the head. A Serbian police car arrived. They used to ask us if Hungarians had beaten us, but this time they didn’t. We went to Horgoš camp. Nobody asked us anything. Nobody asked if we were okay, if we had been beaten. After this all our clothes were ripped, and we slept outside. The next day we walked back to Subotica.

From the moment they caught us to the moment they deported us, they were continuously beating us. The sun was rising when we entered into Serbia. I haven’t told you any lies. I have not exaggerated anything. They hit little kids, they hit little kids so much that they were crying. This is the whole story.

We pray that god saves us from this hardship. We’ve come here and our lives are worse than they were when we were at home. Even dogs have a better life here. We never thought that we could ever be treated this way, that anyone could ever treat us this badly. We left our small children at home for the chance of their lives getting better, but all that has happened is that our lives have gotten worse. How can I tell you…where can we go? We can’t go forward, we can’t go backwards. We’re in such a horrible situation. Nobody understands us. Nobody speaks our language.

Anonymous, age not given
Date of interview: 7 January 2017
Location of interview: ‘Jungle’ Subotica
Interview conducted in English and Urdu

They searched each of us, checking pockets and backpacks, destroying money and smartphones.

On 5 January, 2017, at night, I made an attempt to cross the Hungarian border near the Horgoš crossing. 48 people left with me, but nine of them got scared just before the border fence and decided to go back. The rest of us continued and managed to get across the border to the Hungarian side.

We were walking through the forest about fifteen kilometers north of the border when we heard cars coming and decided to hide. Four marked police cars arrived. There were around fifteen policemen with trained dogs, heat-sensors and handguns. They saw us in the light, rounded us up, and released dogs on us.

Then, without asking any questions first, the police officers started kicking and beating us. Afterwards they searched each of us, checking pockets and backpacks, destroying money and smartphones. Money was shred up in front of our faces, smartphones smashed on the ground. Policemen took out batteries and SIM cards from each phone and destroyed them separately.

Then they collected all the warm clothing we had: jackets, gloves, hats, scarves, shoes, and socks, leaving us only in light jumpers and trousers. Every person who wore more than one pair of trousers was told to take them off.

Meanwhile, one more police car came. Newly arrived officers joined the rest. They hit one of my friends with a stick, severely cutting his head. Then they ordered all of us to sit in a line, with our legs spread, hands on our knees and bowed heads, and started pouring the water they had found in the bags on our heads and clothes.

After that they ordered one man to stand up with his hands behind his back. One of the police officers grabbed him by his collar, threw him on the ground and put a gun against his head. When the victim started crying and begging for mercy, the officer took his gun away, while the other policeman put his leg on the man’s neck and held him down so others could kick him.

Then everyone had the dogs released on them again. When we were trying to back off to escape the dogs, police officers were on the other side of us, kicking us back towards the dogs. This was repeated several times. During all this, some policemen were drinking tea in the car, observing and laughing at us.

When the “game” was over they put us in police cars and drove us back to the Serbian border. They set the air-conditioning to maximum in order to lower the temperature. We were brought back to the border where we were forced to read aloud a statement on a piece of paper, written in Urdu [there were also versions in Pashto and Farsi], saying that we crossed the border illegally and that we didn’t experience any verbal or physical violence from the Hungarian side. Those who didn’t read loud enough were yelled at and threatened. While reading the statements, we were recorded by the officers.

Afterwards, at around eight in the morning, we were passed over to the Serbian side. The Serbians received us and ordered us to go towards Horgoš, but since we knew there’s no shelter in Horgoš except for the unofficial camp in the transit zone, we decided to walk more than twenty kilometers to get back to Subotica. Only a few of us got our wet shoes or socks back; others took off some of the remaining clothes they had and wrapped them around their feet.

The temperature was down to -7 degrees at the time and it was snowing.

N., 27
Date of interview: 21 January 2017
Location of interview: Brick factory, Subotica
Interview conducted in Urdu

They told us to put our hands up. When you put your hands down they hit you. We were standing in the snow, and they took our hats.

I crossed the Hungarian border near Horgoš in a group of forty people. Some of us ran through the border and ran away. Fourteen people, including me, stayed behind and got caught. Six or seven police cars came with two or four police officers in each of them. They had two dogs with them.

The first thing they did was spray our eyes with gas. Then they made me and three other people take our shoes off and stand in the snow. They were hitting us with police batons and kicking. The policemen were wearing dark blue uniforms. Two of them were dressed differently: they had some kind of military trousers on. I can’t tell you what they looked like, they don’t let us look at their faces. If you look at them they hit you and say, “Put your head down!” One of them was tall, skinny and had a beard about an inch long and a mustache. He was the one hitting us the most. The other one was older and fat, he had a dog. They told us to put our hands up. When you put your hands down they hit you. We were standing in the snow, and they took our hats.

They took us to a police van. There were six or seven cars in total, but they put us in one van. When we drove to the border two other cars went with us. At the border they took us out of the van and made us form a line again. Then they released dogs on us. They took pictures and videos of us. They were filming our shoes and faces. They made us read aloud a paper saying that we need to come through legal ways. I couldn’t read myself but my friend did.


Michael Borkiewicz is an activist with Fresh Response, an independent volunteer organization based in Subotica, Serbia that distributes fresh ingredients for refugees and migrants to cook as well as clothes and other aid.

All images: Fresh Response (Facebook)

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