Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

Bulgaria – Let somebody die is killing

Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche Alto Vicentino: Chronicle of a failure to render aid on the Bulgarian-Turkish border


The facts refer to the night of 19-20 July 2023. In order to protect the people involved, we are releasing this report after a few weeks. After this first intervention, as Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche we continue to deal with similar emergencies, acting in first person in the search and rescue of people stranded in the woods along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

1:00 am. The telephone of our collective rings. “We got a pregnant woman on Route 79”; it’s a person living in Harmanli camp that we met some weeks before, he is a friend of the woman’s husband. He is helped by a translator, who is also living in the camp. He fears to be accused of smuggling, so he asks us if we can call an ambulance. Route 79 is one of the most patrolled by the border police, as most of the people who cross the Turkish border need to pass by here to go to Sofia. With the help of the interpreter we call the woman: she is eight months pregnant and she is alone in the “jungle” with her two children. They were exhausted so they have been left near the street by the group they were walking with, waiting for rescue. She gives us her location: We explain to her that the ambulance number is the same of police, so she risks to be illegally pushed-back to Turkey. She knows that and she tells us to call anyway.

2:00 am. We call 112 for the first time. We record this call and all the following ones. No questions about the health conditions of the woman and the children, but the call lasts 11 minutes in order to explain how we got in contact with the woman, how she crossed the border, where she is from, who we are, what we are doing in Bulgaria. They suspect a case of trafficking and we are forced to give them the number of the person who put us in contact with her. We feel under interrogation. “In a couple of minutes our units are gonna be there to search for the woman”, it’s 02:06 am. We realize that we didn’t speak with a rescuer but with a policeman.

03:21 am. One hour passed but nothing happened: we call 112 again. We ask if they called the woman and they answer: “we tried contacting but we can’t reach the phone number”. The woman tells us that she has never received any telephone call. We give them again her location: We add that it is very near to the street but they answer: “not exactly, it’s more like inside of the woods”, “it’s exactly like near the border, and it’s inside of a wood region, it’s a forest, not a street”. In order to dispel any doubts, we ask: “do you confirm that the coordinates are near to route 79?”. They make us wait and they answer: “they are near a main road. Can’t exactly specify if it’s 79″. We say to them that the woman fainted. “Can she dial us? Can she call so we can get a bit more information?”. We don’t understand which other information they need, we are incredulous: “She’s not conscious so I don’t think she’ll be able to make the call”. They suggest that the translator should contact them. We suspect that they want us to be out of the issue. Other 18 minutes passed, the call has been a farce. Before we feared the consequences of the police arrival, now we are afraid that nobody will arrive. We decide to go there, we have to travel 1 hour and 40 minutes.

04:42 am. Third call. They ask us again for all the information, and again we give the geographical coordinates. We tell them that we are going there and we insist: “Are there any news on the research?”. “I can’t tell this”. Through the interpreter we keep constantly in touch with the woman. She confirms that no searching unit has arrived. The farce is becoming a tragedy.

06:18 am. Fourth call. We are at the location but the street is empty. We want to be irreproachable and let them know that we arrived. We repeat again that we are calling for a pregnant woman in bad conditions. The conversation is absurd, they start again with the questions: “which month?”, “which baby is this? First? Second?”, “how old does she look like?”, “how do you know she’s there? she called you or what?”. We tell them that we are about to start to look for her and they answer: “we are looking for her also”. We say: “Well, where are you because there is no one here, we are on the spot and there is no one”. They justify themselves: “you have new information because obviously she is not at the one coordinates you gave”, “the police went three times to the coordinates and they didn’t find the woman, the coordinates are wrong”. Once again we understand that they are lying.

We will make another call at 06:43 am, when we have already found her. They will ask again for the coordinates and they will tell us to wait for them along the street. 

Our research lasts a few minutes. The woman sends us the location again: 42.12′.36.3N 2700.43.3E. She is 500 meters far from the previous coordinates but nearer to the street. We shout “hello” and we follow the voices we hear: we find her 2 meters far from the street, on a gentle slope, lying down under a tree with her two children by her side. They come from Syria, the children are 4 and 7 years old. She is too weak to stand up. We have only some water and bread for them. There is also a boy with them, probably he is underage. He found them and he stopped to help them. We warn him that the police will arrive soon. He doesn’t want to be pushed-back to Turkey, so he goes away, alone and without a backpack. We look around: in reality, the so-called “forest” is a little wooded area of some meters, which divides the street from the fields.

Some minutes later a border police patrol passes by and stops. They approach us with the hand on the gun. They have not been warned about the situation: they assail us with thousands of questions without any interest for the woman and the children. They take our telephones and they delete the photos taken at the police arrival. We decide to call a local lawyer that we met some days before: she answers that it’s normal that the rescuers are late in the “jungle” and she suggests us to go away in order to let the police work. Meanwhile, the gendarmerie and the local police arrive. It’s missing the only essential and requested thing: the ambulance, which will never arrive.

07:45 am. The police escort us to the nearest village (Sredets) and assure us that there is a hospital there. They try to divide the woman and the children in two different cars. We ask to bring them all together in our car. In Sredets we are brought to the border police station nevertheless. We see many border policemen dressed in camouflage, armed with machine guns, leaving in groups with military vehicles. We see two Dutch Frontex agents and also a Bulgarian policeman with a fascist T-shirt of Predappio gatherings. We are constrained at the end of a corridor, standing, with only one chair for the woman, surrounded by five policemen. The youngest one shouts at us that we will be detained “because you are making illegal migrants cross the border”. We ask for some water and a toilet for the woman and the children, at the beginning they deny them. We keep waiting, then they tell us that they can’t go to the hospital because they are undocumented and that they are arrested. 

09:00 am. Finally the doctor arrives. He speaks only Bulgarian, he visits the woman in the corridor without any privacy, asking her to uncover the belly in front of five policemen. We call once again the lawyer, we want to demand a doctor’s office and an interpreter for the woman. We are not listened.After 5 minutes the doctor finishes the visit, suggesting only to drink a lot of water.

09:35 am. They give us back our id cards and they invite us to go away. It’s the last time that we see the woman and the two children. The police will confiscate her telephone. They are not given the possibility to apply for asylum and they are brought to the pre-removal detention centre in Lyubimets. Before leading us to the exit, a certain inspector Palov asks us to sign three papers, which justify the hours we spent in the police station as a conversation held with him after an official summons. We reject.

On the way back, we drive again on the Route 79, it’s patrolled by a lot of police. We think about all the people who die every night without the possibility to ask for help. We think about the few people who ask for it in vain. On the land borders as on the sea ones, the failure to render aid is a strategy planned by authorities.

The following day we meet the friend of the woman’s husband. He knows that he will not be able to do such things anymore because he will be accused of smuggling and he will lose all the possibilities to build a new life in Europe. Instead, we can and have to go on as independent activists: we have much less to lose. It’s clear to us the urgency to act first-hand and to disobey to who kills letting people die.

After 20 days we manage to meet the woman with the children, who finally have been transferred to the Harmanli camp. They stayed in the pre-removal detention centre in Lyubimets for 19 days. The woman tells us that, during their stay, she had never been brought to the hospital for a visit, in order to check her pregnancy. She has been visited only by the doctor of the centre: a very superficial and hasty check-up, a treatment very similar to the one received in the Sredets police station. She also gives us her approval to share this report.