VIOLENT PUSHBACKS

August 2021

I

‘I had to translate for everyone they were going to kill us’

The burns suffered by Interviewee N19 because of sleeping close to a fire

The testimonies collected reveal that the interviewees typically stayed in a hotel in Minsk for a few days before being transferred to the Latvian border by taxi or private cars in small groups. Several of the interviewees had previously unsuccessfully attempted to cross the Lithuanian or Polish border where some of them were separated from their families. Some individuals reported they crossed the Latvian border at a place where there were no Belarusian border guards; whereas some reported Belarusian border guards helped them cross the border.

On 10 August 2021, after the introduction of the state of emergency, the Latvian authorities started to turn back third-country nationals who had irregularly crossed the Latvian border from Belarus or attempted to do so – irrespective of their wish to claim asylum. Over the subsequent days, people were pushed back and forth between Latvia and Belarus, as Belarusian border guards did not allow them to return to Minsk and the Latvian authorities did not allow their entry. 

‘I came to Belarus on 7 August 2021 and stayed in Minsk for three days. On 10 August I travelled to the Latvia-Belarus border by taxi. I wanted to claim asylum. Altogether we were five people: me, three men and one woman. After we arrived at the border, we walked around nine kilometres inside the Latvian territory and reached a small village with several houses. Someone from the village saw us and called the border guards. When they arrived we thought they were going to take us to a refugee camp but instead they put us in their car and drove us back to the Belarus border. They hit us by police sticks and told us, ‘Don’t come again. If you come again, we will hurt you more.’ 

After we were returned to the Belarusian side, we wanted to go back to Minsk. But the Belarus border guards told us it was impossible as we had crossed the border illegally and our names were now on the black list. We begged them to let us go back to Minsk and offered them money in exchange but they told we could only go to Latvia. They put us in a car, took us to the border and sent us back to Latvia. Then the Latvian border guards caught us with the help of patrol dogs, beat us up again and sent us back to Belarus. We asked them why they did not let us in. They told us we did not have any chance to enter Latvia. [We were pushed back and forth] for three days. After three days Latvian border guards beat us and told their dogs to attack us. They said, ‘If you don’t return to the other side, you will have to run or they will catch you.’

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August - late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

'On 4 August 2021 my father, my mother, my then ten-year-old brother and I travelled by plane from Erbil via Istanbul to Belarus. We wanted to ask for asylum. We stayed in Minsk for several days and went to the Latvian border on 10 August by private cars. Altogether we were 26 people in our group and 11 of us were children. When we arrived at the border, we got off the cars and walked to the border. Belarusian border guards did not see us. We crossed the border into Latvia and were walking for about 30-60 minutes before the Latvian border guards caught us. It was already 11 August at 2 or 3 am in the morning. There were journalists with cameras there as well. The border guards took us into cars and drove us back to the Belarus border. We told them we did not want to go back but they said Latvia was closed for refugees and ordered us to go. They hit one of us by a stick and told their dogs to attack us, so we were forced to go back to Belarus.

 

  Reuters article documenting the arrival of this group

In Belarus we were caught by the Belarusian border guards. We told them we wanted to go back to Minsk because the Latvians attacked us and prohibited us to come there. One of the officers took my passport and asked us to wait. When he returned he said that we could not go to Minsk and had to go back to Latvia. We refused to go but they took one child [from our group] and said that if we did not come they would send her to the border alone. We did not have any other choice, so they returned us to the Latvian border. The Belarus border guards told us that if we walked near towns or villages people would help us. 

We crossed the border and were walking away from it. Near a Latvian village named Robežnieki the police caught us at night. After that the border guards arrived. They were followed by two black minibuses with men in dark blue uniforms. We understood they were Latvian police SWAT. They ordered women and children to get into one of the cars and beat the men up with hands and feet. Then they sent us to the car and hit the men with electroshock sticks. At this time they only beat me up but did not use electroshock on me because I could speak English and translated for them, but they did use electroshock on my dad and other men. Following that, they took us back to the border. They told me to translate that if we come back again we will die and they will kill us. I had to translate that for women and children too. It is so hard when they say they will kill your family and you have to translate for them.’ 

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
‘I was in the same group of 26 people as [Interviewee N2]. I travelled from Iraq to Minsk and then to the Latvian border with my wife and two children aged three and four. After we crossed the border, we were constantly pushed back and forth between Latvia and Belarus. The Belarusians did not let us go back to Minsk but did not hit us. The Latvians beat us a lot. They beat the men with sticks, hands and feet, hit us with electroshock and drove us back Belarus. I personally was also taken inside the car and beaten up. They even hit me in the eyes – my eyes were blue. They took us back to the Belarus border and said that if we return to the Latvian side they would kill us. The men who beat us wore masks and black uniforms. They treated us worse than Daesh in Iraq. 

While we were pushed back and forth, sometimes they drove us to the border by car and sometimes forced us to cross it by foot. We were left in the forest with no food. Sometimes they separated families – men were taken to one border pillar and women and children to another pillar. My family was also separated, and we did not see each other for two days.’ 

Interviewee N3, male, spent 10 days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months in the Daugavpils centre
‘I was in the same group of 26 people as [Interviewee N2]. We crossed the Latvian border on 11 August when it had already been closed. Latvian border guards caught us and sent us back to Belarus, and Belarusian border guards sent us back to Latvia. We were constantly pushed back and forth every day, they were playing football with us. If they caught us far from the border, the Belarusian border guards took us back by car, but if we were close to the border they sent us by foot. The Latvians did the same.  The Belarusians did not hit us, just sent us to the Latvian side. 

The Latvians treated us very badly. They hit the men in their back and legs, everyone was very scared. They beat the men with sticks, electroshock, feet and hands. The people who beat our group were Latvian commandos in black uniforms; they arrived in cars with black windows. They forced the men into cars and beat them for 10-15 minutes. During this time neither Belarusian, nor Latvian border guards gave us any food. We were sharing the food we brought with us when we first arrived at the border. When it was raining, we put a plastic bag under the rain and drank the rainwater. Then we found an apple tree and were eating apples, just not to die.’ 
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
‘On 30 July 2021, I came to Belarus with my family (my wife, one daughter and three sons) and my brother’s family. We went to the Belarusian-Lithuanian border first. After we crossed the border, the Lithuanian border guards caught us. They accepted my wife and kids and my brother’s family but did not allow me and my brother to go with them and pushed us back to the Belarusian side of the border. We attempted to cross the border for the second time but were pushed back again. 

After that, my brother and I came back to Minsk. The smugglers who organised the trip told me I would be able to see my family if I went via Latvia – and that is why I went there on 11 August 2021. When we crossed the Latvian border we were caught by Latvian border guards who shouted at us ‘Go, go, go!’ and pushed us back into Belarus. The Belarusian border guards then took us back to the Latvian border. When the Latvians caught us for the first time they did not hit us but when they caught us again they beat us up. The Belarusians did not hit us but the Latvians hit us a lot. 

The Latvians operated as follows: there were groups consisting of a few men in military uniforms who passed us on to masked men in black uniforms and gave them orders. The men in black uniforms then forced us into cars and beat us up severely. I thought they were going to kill us. They even hit me with electroshock in the head. I thought I was going crazy, I lost conscience. Once they wanted to hit me in the head with a stick but I covered it with hands and they hit my finger and broke it. My finger is now crooked. 

It was impossible to talk or discuss anything with them, we could not do anything; we were all very scared. They demanded us not to look them in the eyes and hit us every time they saw us doing so. During the first few days they beat us constantly. Once after they returned us to the Belarus side me and three other persons found a ravine in the forest and hid there for three-four days. We were scared Belarusian border guards would find us and return us back to Latvia where we would be beaten again.’  

Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November
‘On 4 August 2021 me, my wife and our then 10-months old daughter flew from Baghdad to Minsk. We spent a few days in Minsk before going to the Latvian border. Two more people went to the border with us – [Interviewee N6] and his brother. After we crossed the border, Latvian border guards caught us and returned to the Belarus side. Belarusian border guards did not hit us – the people who hit us were Latvian commandos in dark uniforms. People in military uniforms passed us on to them, and they beat us up in black cars. They kept pushing us back and forth. Both the Belarusians and Latvians took us to different border pillars – sometimes they brought us there by cars and sometimes ordered to go by foot. Once they separated me from my family.’ 
Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to his country of nationality in mid-December after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre

The wounds of Interviewee N7 from when the Latvian forces allegedly beat him

On 7 August 2021, I, together with my husband and his cousin, took a plane to Belarus. We spent three days in a hotel in Minsk before going by taxi to the Belarusian-Latvian border on 10 August 2021. The taxi driver spoke Russian. We went to the border in a group of five people. The driver took us close to the border and said we had to go on foot after that point. After the taxi stopped, we walked for around seven hours first on the Belarusian and then on Latvian territory. Then Latvian soldiers caught us and took us back to the Belarus border. They hit the men with electroshock and told their dogs to attack us. After that the Belarusian border guards caught us. We told them we wanted to go back to Minsk but they did not let us do so, although we still had valid Belarus visas in our passports. They took us back to the border and ordered us to return to Latvia. Over the subsequent week we continued to be pushed back and forth. The men were beaten up by Latvian commandos. The Belarusian border guards never hit us.’

Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November


II 

‘They beat me up, hit me with electroshock over 20 times and dunked my head in dirty water’ 

A group of Iraqi nationals of Yazidi background stranded on the Latvia-Belarus border, August 2021

Over the subsequent days, the third-country nationals who had attempted to enter Latvia from Belarus since 10 August were gathered into larger groups who ended up stranded on the border line with Belarusian border guards on one side and Latvian border guards on another side. Both sides were not letting people to cross the border, forcing them to stay on the borderline under an open sky without any protection from cold or rain. Altogether there were four groups of people stranded at the Latvia-Belarus border at that time. The largest one involved 41 Kurdish-ethnic Iraqi nationals who subsequently became applicants in the case H.M.M. and Others v. Latvia (ECtHR group). Another group was composed of 18 Iraqi nationals of Yazidi background. The remaining two groups were smaller and equally included Iraqi nationals (although not exclusively).

‘When the Latvians took us back to the Belarus side, Belarusian border guards caught us and brought us to the border line. Other people, including [Interviewee N2], where already sitting there. The Belarusian border guards brought there more people from other places and made one group. On one side, there were Belarusian soldiers, and on the other – Latvian soldiers. We were trapped between them and could not move anywhere. It was only after several days that Latvian border guards brought us biscuits and water.’ 

Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre

‘After we were pushed back to the Belarus side again and Belarusian border guards caught us, we told them that the Latvians beat us and told their dogs to attack us. The Belarusians put us in soldier cars and drove to a place where other refugees where sitting as well. They told us that if we sit there together the Latvians will not be able to beat us. Altogether we were 41 persons. At first we did not have any food but several days later Latvian border guards brought us some biscuits and water. While we were staying at this place, Latvian border guards suggested that we make videos and send them to journalists, maybe the European Union would so something for us and send some people to help us.’ 

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

‘First we were sitting at the border pillar 235 for around two or three days and then at the border pillar 98 for around seven to nine days. While we were at the border 235 Latvian border guards deceived us. They asked us to go with them and told there was an ambulance or that they would take us to a refugee camp. But instead the commandos came, divided us into three groups and drove us to different border pillars. They sent me and my father to the border pillar 98 and sent women with children, including my mother and my brother, to the border pillar 70. They ordered me to cross the border into Belarus and told that my family was coming soon. I crossed the border and was waiting for my family but they did not come, so I went back to the border and asked about them. The Latvian officer who was staying there hit me and ordered me to go. One day later one of the Latvian officers promised me to bring back my family if I make a video and tell that Belarusian border guards were bad. I was ready to do everything and was crying a lot, so I and [Interviewee N1] filmed the video where I told bad things about the Belarusians – for example, that they did not let us go back to Minsk although we had a visa. After that I was reunited with my family. 

While we were staying at the border pillar 98, a Latvian officer told me to make a video and send it to journalists. He told maybe this would help us. We were trapped between Latvian and Belarusian soldiers but still had our phones and internet connection. The Latvians also charged a power bank for us. So I began taking photos and shooting videos. I contacted a journalist of Kurdish origin living in Germany, and he put me in touch with a journalist from the Deutsche Welle. Some of these videos were published by the Deutsche Welle on 18 14 August 2021. Through my cousin I contacted Mr Edgars Oļševskis, a Latvian lawyer, whom we asked for help. I wrote an authorisation for him and collected signatures of all refugees who were with me at that time. I transferred the photo of the signed authorisation to Mr Oļševskis through my cousin. I also got in touch with ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’, a Latvian NGO providing assistance to refugees, and sent them the videos I had shot. 

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November

The videos shot by Interviewee N2, published by the Deutsche Welle

The Rule 39 requests were received by the ECtHR on 20 August 2021. In the subsequent days, the NGO ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’ started delivering hot meals to the persons stranded at the border. The NGO representatives were not allowed to approach the groups directly and gave the food to the border guards who, in turn, passed it to people. The NGO representatives also contacted the UNHCR's Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries who announced its intention to visit the stranded group on 24 August. The group was informed about their planned visit. 




On 20 August, the Latvian border guards transferred three families with young children (11 persons in total) to the Daugavpils camp. This has been documented on a video filmed by Interviewee N2. The video features a representative of the Latvian border guard informing the families they would be transferred to the camp ‘according to our law and international law’.17 Interviewees N3 and 7, who represent two of the three families in question, accuse the Latvian authorities of attempting to deceive them.

‘When they came on August 20 they said they were taking families with young children and that that we would be able to ask for protection. We knew they were lying but we were scared that they would beat us again. We were worried about our children and this is why we followed them.’ 

Interviewee N3, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months at the Daugavpils centre

‘When we were taken to Daugavpils, they simply deceived us. We understood that we would be able to claim asylum.

Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre

Interviewee N9 and his family found themselves in another group stranded at the border during that time. The group involved 11 individuals. Interviewee N9 and his family were transferred to the Daugavpils camp on 17 August.

‘On August 11 me, my wife and our four children (aged 3, 8, 11 and 12) travelled to Minsk from Erbil via Turkey. We spent two days in a hotel in Minsk and then went to the Latvian border by taxi. Taxi drivers spoke Arabic. Altogether there were 11 persons in our group; the others were travelling alone without families. We arrived at the Latvian border on 14 August.

After we crossed the border Latvian border guards caught us and returned us to Belarus. Belarusian border guards brought us to a place where we found ourselves trapped between both sides. We remained there for nearly three days. We were located in the direct proximity of the [ECtHR] group and could see them. On one occasion the Latvians deceived us. They told they would take us to the camp but took us to the forest instead. We were walking long distances without food, got very tired and ultimately were returned to the same place again. Belarusian border guards never hit us but the Latvians treated us as if we were not human beings. The men from our group were beaten up and hit with electroshock in the forest on the Latvian territory. Latvian commandos threatened to kill us if we come back from Belarus again. On 17 August they transferred me and my family to the Daugavpils camp.’

Interviewee N9, male, spent three days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late September after having spent one month at the Daugavpils centre.

The interviewees testify that on 23-24 August, shortly before the planned UNHCR visit to the border, the Latvian authorities removed the stranded groups from the border line. According to the interviewees from the ECtHR group, the Latvian authorities first attempted to persuade people to follow them under false pretences and then removed them from the border line by force. Persons from the groups stranded at the border were then reportedly brought to two tents in the Latvian territory and later divided into smaller groups, driven to different border pillars and ordered to cross the border into Belarus. 

According to the interviewees, this was accompanied by brutal violence by Latvian forces. According to the interviewees from the ECtHR group, on 23 August they were approached by a representative of the Latvian State Border Guard who asked them in the English language to follow him. 

‘One day a man from the Latvian border guard approached us. He talked a lot. He said they were going to bring us food, hot water, everything else. I called someone from the human rights organisation and he told me this man was telling lies and we should not follow him. But half of our group followed him because it was cold at the border and we did not have much food.’ 

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August -late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

‘On 23 August a man in border guard uniform came to us. He had white hair and wore a mask. He said he worked at immigration. Some of our group followed him but others, including my family, stayed. I recorded his voice.’ 

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November





‘Voice N1: We are immigration service officials. [..] Our main task is to carry out some procedures with foreigners according to our laws. [..] I am an official at the unit which carries out some procedures with foreigners. Our main task is to communicate with foreigners. Our main task is to take an interview with you. Our main task is to identify your personality – to check your passports or other kind of documents. [..] We have to take our procedure but we cannot do this on this border line [..] because you disturb our border guards from performing their duties. [..] That’s why we kindly ask you to cooperate with us and leave this border line and go with us to special roads where we can do our procedures. And also on that roads we can carry out some humanitarian activities, we can easier provide you hot foot, water, medical care, healthcare, medical check and so on. On this line we cannot do it, we can do it only on that road. It is very difficult to provide here food, water, medical doctors, because the road is not so good. My dear friends, besides, it is not legal to carry out our work, our procedure here. It is not so easy to do it here. That is why we kindly ask you to leave this zone. We will deliver you with quadracycles and other means of transport. Outside this line we can also solve any humanitarian moments. Next, it is not legal to stay here and disturb our personnel from carrying out their duties. That is why I ask you to think something. You can discuss my offers and after that you can give me your answer. But don’t forget that we provide, we offer [..] and we wait from you also to cooperate with us. Is that clear? Super, thank you. I will give you 5-10 minutes that you can discuss in your group [..] and after that we wait your answer. 

[..] 

Voice N2 [one of the persons from the group]: My question is that: after the road where we go? 

Voice N1: We will go to the road, it is a special road. It is a road where we can communicate with you, maybe I will try to identify you. Because some of you have documents. […] After that I have to communicate with you and to know your reasons, I have to know some details, but the main task to go from this [place] is a humanitarian aspect. [..] as quickly as possible to provide food, water, medical care if necessary. [..]

Voice N2 [one of the persons from the group]: Sometimes they say we want [us] to go to the road and we want to have humanity, but after the humanity came the commandos and hit us. 

Voice N1: Ok, you are afraid of commandos, yes? 

Voice N2: I don’t’ want to come… 

Voice N1: But don’t forget. You are filming and taking photos, and don’t forget – we will say to international organisations that we provide you help and you don’t want to cooperate with us. With the state border guard. It is not so good for you, you know. 

Voice N2: Sir… 

Voice N1: What are you afraid of, I don’t understand?! 

Voice N3 [one of the persons from the group]: Before we came with the government, the police like you. [..] And they hit us. Commandos came…

Voice N1: As I understand, you don’t trust me. You don’t trust the immigration office.  

Voice N2: Sir, but the international… 

Voice N1: Ok, stop. Ok, what do you want? I can’t understand. 

Voice N2: We want to go to the camp. We don’t want to go to the road and interviews on the road. 

Voice N1: How can we provide this moment if you don’t want to leave this border line? [shouting] How can I help you? Try to think! Switch on your brain! [..] You will sit a long time here because you don’t want to cooperate with us! And I don’t understand what I must do to help you. 

Voice N2: We just want international humanity … to come here and after they come here…’ 

The group of 41 persons subsequently split into two parts, with some of the people following the man and some refusing to do so. Interviewees N1 and 2 were among those who decided to remain on the borderline waiting for the UNHCR to arrive. According to their testimonies, in the early morning of 24 August they were forcefully removed from that place by the Latvian authorities.

‘Early in the morning that man [mentioned above] came again. He said that if we did not follow him now they were going to take us away by force. After a couple of minutes 20-30 soldiers came and took us by force. They took us to a nearby road where we saw several cars with commandos. They forced us into their cars and ordered us to hold our heads down and not to look at them or anywhere else. They dropped us off at a place in the forest with two orange tents. There were around 100 people in the tents. There were many soldiers with guns around us. They started investigating us one by one. They asked where we came from and why we came here, and we had to answer all their questions. They checked all our clothes, pockets, bags, and shoes. They checked my phone by a computer programme and checked my contacts. We asked why they were doing all this but they told us not to speak. They removed my SIM card from the slot and put my phone into water before my eyes. 

After that they put us again in the tent. The following day they started to take people to the border. But before that they brought me outside the tent and started to hit me with electroshock. I was yelling loudly. They used electroshock on my entire body, they hit me in my tongue and blood started to come out of my mouth. They also hit me in the back of my neck and my private parts. I lost conscience and fell on the ground. A few seconds later I regained conscience and three commandos started beating me. I was lying on the ground, one was sitting on me and the other ones were beating me with feet and hands. I was yelling, I did not know what to do, that was crazy. One of the soldiers came again, held me and dunked my head into a bucket of water three times. I thought he was going to kill me. They told me, ‘Don’t speak, don’t yell, and don’t say anything.’ They put me in the car and started to do the same to [Interviewee N2]. They were beating everyone who was with us. 

After that they took us to the border. They split us into smaller groups and put into separate cars. Sometimes they separated families – for example, put mothers with children into one car and fathers into another car. We did not know where they were taking us. When we asked they told us we had no right to speak. They dropped me off and ordered to go to Belarus. They told me, ‘If I see you again, maybe I am going to kill you. I don’t want to see your face again.’ 

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 Augustlate October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

"My group split into two. Some people followed the man [mentioned above]. I told them not to go with him as maybe that was not good for us. I told them we should stay there and wait for the UNHCR to come but they did not listen to me and went away. I also heard other groups shouting – one of them was maybe only two or three border pillars away from us. There were now 17 people left in my group. At 5-6 am in the morning Latvian soldiers came and forced us to come with them. My family and I not want to go. But we could not stay alone at the border and did not have any other options, so we followed them. They took us to a place with two tents. This place was hidden in the forest in the Latvian territory close to the village of Robežnieki. They brought people from other border pillars there as well, so altogether we were around 90-100 people at this place. I saw only a few border guards there; most of the people guarding the tents were police swat. We stayed there for the following night. Later they broke all my phones. I had four mobile phones – they put all of them into water. 

They ordered us to come one by one from the tent and beat us very hard. I was beaten up by five or six men – one of them was a border guard and all the others police SWAT. Then one person hit me with electroshock 20-22 times. He hit me 16 times in the back, one time in the head and one more time in the back of my neck. He also tried to use electroshock on my private parts three times but he succeeded only once as I did not let him and he charged my hand twice instead. I was like dead and closed my eyes. Then they dunked my head into dirty water three times and I woke up. All my face was in blood, and all my body was in dirty water. They treated me as if were not a human being, as if I had killed someone or were a terrorist. My mum and my brother were crying, and they ordered me to tell my brother to stop crying or they would kill him. But he was only ten years old. After that they loaded us into cars, took us again to the border, split us into small groups and ordered to return to Belarus. At that time I was together with my family and Interviewees N4 and 5. 

I have a question to the Latvian state – why did they hit me? We say fine, if you do not want us to come to your country, we don’t come. But you know that Belarus does not accept me, so I will need to stay at the border. We were sitting at the border and waiting. We did not do 20 anything bad. But then the border guards came and forced us to cross the border into Latvia. We did not want to cross the border – they wanted us to do so. And it was the Latvian border guards who told me to take videos and translate for my group. And later they hit me because I took videos and spoke English.’ 
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
‘They brought us to a tent where we joined people from other groups who were already sitting there. While we were in the tent, they ordered the men to go outside one by one. We heard how they were beating them. They were screaming. When they returned them to the tent after a while, we could see that they were beaten. They were crying like children. I felt so sad and sorry for them. Following that they divided us into smaller groups and forced us into cars. I was in one car with [Interviewee N2] and his family and [Interviewee N5]. They took us to the Belarus border and ordered us to cross it. They told that if we come back they would kill us.’ 
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
These testimonies have also been confirmed by other people from the ECtHR group, such as Interviewees N5, 6 and 8. They have also confirmed that Latvian forces used electroshock on Interviewees N1 and 2 and dunked their head in water. Interviewee N10 was not part of the ECtHR group but equally testifies he was taken to the tent after having experienced pushbacks and violence over the preceding days. He told that on 20-22 August intermediaries brought him, his wife, young children and two of their relatives to the forest on the Belarus side close to an official border crossing point.

‘We wandered for two days in the forest before we saw a green fence. We walked along it for around half an hour before we reached a border crossing point. We suddenly found themselves in between Latvian and Belarusian soldiers who stood there with guns. We were standing in the centre of the border strip. My legs began shaking; I thought they would start shooting now. The gate in the fence was open and we carefully crossed into the Latvian side. 

The Latvian border guards asked us to follow them inside the Latvian territory. We walked around two kilometres. My children could barely walk, everyone was very tired. Then they told us to sit and wait. First their boss arrived in a green jeep. He checked our papers. We told him many times we wanted to claim asylum. He asked where we wanted to go and if we wanted to go to Germany. I replied that it did not matter to me; I just wanted my children to be safe. Then he called someone, and men in black uniforms arrived. They checked our backpacks and threw all our belongings on the ground. They said they did not care why we came to Latvia and started swearing. All this happened before my children’s eyes. 

They hit us very hard, they know where to hit to make it more painful but not to leave any permanent damage. They dragged me to the ground and hit me with feet. Then the men in black uniforms hit me with sticks and electroshock, including my private parts. They hit me for no reason – just asked why we crossed the border illegally, although we said that we wanted to ask for asylum. They did not care about that. 

On around 23 August they took us to a tent where we joined around 70 Iraqis. The following day they loaded us into cars again and took us back to the border. Before that they hit us all very hard by sticks and electroshock, everyone was screaming. They did that on purpose, so that we do not come back again. I cannot even describe how brutal it was. Those who beat us up were men in black uniforms. Then they dropped us off, ordered us to cross the border and told that if we don’t do so they will shoot at us. It did not matter to them that children were present there as well.’
Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- September 2021). 

On 24 August the UNCHR representatives visited the location the third-country nationals were previously stranded but did not find any people there. On 25 August, when the groups had already been removed from the border line, the ECtHR indicated interim measures in H.M.M. and Others v. Latvia. The Court decided, without prejudice to any duties that Belarus may have under international law regarding the situation of the applicants, to apply Rule 39 and request that the Latvian authorities provide all the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter. The measure applied for a period of three weeks from 25 August until 15 September 2021 inclusive. On 15 September the ECtHR lifted temporary measures. The Court indicated that a total of 11 of the group (six adults and five children), ‘had been admitted onto Latvian territory for humanitarian reasons, in the main for health problems and the fact that some were minors’ and that the other applicants no longer appeared to be at or near the border zone.

August 2021 – February 2022

III

‘I have never seen life like this. I will never forget that.’

Following the events described above, the third-country nationals who sought entry into Latvia from Belarus continued to experience daily pushbacks. According to the interviewees, from then on every night they used to be transported to a tent set up by the Latvian authorities in the Latvian territory and then pushed back into Belarus the following morning.  During the day, they were transported back to Latvia by the Belarusian border guards.

‘After the Latvians took us to the border [following the events on August 23-24] I was very scared. After we crossed the border we spent three days in the forest on the Belarus side. We were walking slowly and wanted to get somewhere but eventually Belarus soldiers caught us again. We started to cry. I said, ‘Please, we will give you money, just don’t return me to Latvia as they are going to kill me’. They told they had an order to bring us back. So they put us in the car and took us to the border again. 

Then the Latvian border guards saw us and told us to follow them. We walked around 50 meters inside the forest, so that no one could see what was going to happen. After 30-40 minutes commandos arrived in big vans. They yelled ‘Look down, look down!’, checked our clothes, ordered us to lie down with our faces on the ground and beat us with feet. From then on, this procedure repeated every day – they took us to the tent and back to the border (there was now one tent instead of the two). 

During my first month in the forest the Latvians used to take us to the border and force to cross into Belarus two times a day. One or two times a week they ordered us to cross the border through a swamp. The water was so dirty and we could not move, because if you move you can get sucked in. They told us it was only one meter deep but sometimes it was deeper. And the water was black, so we could not see if there was something dangerous inside. One month later they ordered us to cross the border one time a day. Every day at 4am they woke us up, put us in cars and drove us to the border. Sometimes they put 20-25 people in one minibus. It was so hard for us – we had to sit on our knees with our heads down like the biggest terrorists in the world. Every day they took us to different border pillars. We knew all their numbers. When the Belarusians returned us back, the Latvians checked everything again and asked us to take off all our clothes. Every day was like that.’

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August - late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

‘[After the events on 23 and 24 august] they drove me to the border. I was together with my family and two other women [Interviewees N4 and 5]. After that we got caught by Belarusian border guards who returned us to Latvia, and the Latvians returned us back to Belarus. We stayed alone in the forest for seven or eight days. Later the Latvians started to take us to the tent every night. It was better than to sleep in the forest. We were around 48 persons in the tent – the rest of those who were with us on 24 August managed to go back to Minsk, as they still had phones. 

Every morning they took us from the tent by a minibus to the Belarus border. We stayed on the Belarus side for several hours and then had to return back. Sometimes in one day Latvians forced us to cross the border with Belarus two or three times. Some days they allowed my family to stay in the tent – because my father had broken his leg and my brother was small. All the time I said we were ready to pay money to go back. Once we offered Belarusian border guards 5,000 dollars just to let us go back to Minsk. They did not accept that. I offered the Latvians money as well but they did not accept it either. Latvian forces did not let us have phones. They broke all phones. We asked them, ‘Just give us a phone and we will go back to Minsk.’ They said they could not do so. We tried to go back to Minsk many times but we did not succeed because we did not have a phone.’

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
‘When we were forced to cross the border [after the events on 23 and 24 august] we were running about 10 km with children. We were very scared. But then Belarus border guards caught us and took us back to the Latvian border. Then Latvian commandos in black uniforms arrived again. These people are extremely cruel. They arrived in long big vans and forced us inside like cattle. They checked all our belongings again and then brought us to the tent for the night. At 4 am in the morning they woke everyone up and took us back to the border. This repeated every day. It became a mandatory procedure for everyone, like going to work. The Latvians fingerprinted us, and both the Latvians and Belarusians took pictures of us. The Latvians told us this was their country and we needed to return to where we came from.

Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- September 2021)

‘There were three groups of Latvian commandos – each of them brought people from the tent to different border pillars. After some time Belarus border guards caught us and took us back to the border. If there were many of us, they took us back by cars, but if there were only a few people they just showed us the direction to the border and ordered to walk there.’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November
‘After the Latvians forced us to cross the border into Belarus I was in a group of eight people. We spent four to five days in the forest being pushed back and forth without food or drinking water. We were even afraid to make fire. It was raining and we were drenched; we could not sleep. We wanted to return to Minsk but were intercepted again by Belarusian border guards. Five days later, after the Latvians caught us again, they took us to the tent. Every time they woke us up at 4am and drove us back to the Belarusian border. Later the Belarusian border guards took us back. If they could not find us, we stayed in the forest. I spent 80 days at the border – out of these, we stayed around one month in the forest under an open sky. For the rest of the time they took us to the tent for the night and then sent us back in the morning.’
Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November
‘Every day early in the morning when it was still dark we were all taken from the tent to the forest in Belarus. The commandos entered the tent, woke us up and told we had to be ready in 10 minutes. After 10-15 minutes they opened the tent’s door and took us one by one to the cars. Sometimes women and children stayed in the tent because it was too cold. When I stayed in Latvia there were 43 persons in the tent and Latvian soldiers normally took us to the border in three cars – 10-12 people in each car. But sometimes they loaded 20 people in one car, although there was no space for so many people. On the way to the border we needed to hold our heads down and not to look anywhere, so that the location of the tent was not revealed. If anybody raised their head up they would get hit. Hitting was normal for them. 

Every day they took us to different border pillars – one day that could be the pillar N15 and the following day the pillar N37, 72 or 299. Border pillars like N15, 47, 50 , 55 or 72 were easy. We walked two to three kilometres inside the Belarusian territory; we knew there was a small village with some old empty houses. We entered these houses and knew Belarus soldiers had their cameras placed there. We stayed under the cameras and they arrived in half an hour. They brought everybody bread and water. Sometimes we paid them money and they bought us food from the shop, such as meat or cheese. We stayed there, eat the food and made fire. After one or two hours Belarus border guards brought us back by car to the Latvian border. Sometimes they brought us back in a group of around ten persons but we could also be 30-40 people. We arrived at the Latvian border at 12-1pm, it was good time. We searched for surveillance cameras and stood under them waiting for the Latvian border guards to come and call the commandos who would then take us to the tent. We would arrive at the tent at 2pm, and at around 4pm they would bring us biscuits and water. That was our dinner. And once in three days they gave us a little soup, nothing more. 

But some border pillars were very difficult. Border pillars like N189, 200 or 259 are close to Lithuania and there are no villages or houses there, nothing. This is why the Belarusian soldiers told us not to go far from the border, just stay and wait for them to come. So when we crossed the border at this place we walked around 200 m into Belarus, collected firewood 25 and made fire so that we do not die from the cold while we were waiting for the Belarusian soldiers to come. We did not know how long we would need to wait – sometimes they arrived in one or two but sometimes only in five or six hours. It was very cold in the forest and I did not feel my fingers and toes anymore. And the Latvian tent was very far from these pillars, the way was very long. After the Belarusians took us back to the border we had to wait for Latvian commandos for one or two hours in the cold. After they arrived they ordered us to hold our heads down again and checked everybody’s clothes for some spying software. Then we taken into commandos’ minibuses and needed to hold our heads down again. We needed to drive for one or two hours to get to the tent, so we only arrived there at night. And in the morning everything repeated again.’

Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October -December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December

When I was in the forest the snow was more than a meter deep. We were walking all the time to make our bodies warm, because otherwise we would have died. When we were taken back to the Latvian border, Latvian border guards called the commandos. It was very cold, and sometimes we had to wait for several hours in the snow until they came. When they arrived they checked all my body. The Latvians asked us to cross the border through a swamp. It was very cold and it was covered with ice. Three times I broke through the ice and fell inside the water. All my body was wet.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December.
The interviewees reveal that every time they came back to the tent, Latvian authorities checked their clothes. In some cases, people were reportedly asked to undress completely. In addition, both Latvian and Belarusian authorities reportedly ordered people stranded at the border to provide information about the other side.

The Latvians asked us many times what was happening on the Belarus side, what the Belarusian soldiers were doing, what they wanted, what they said. Latvian police SWAT were checking us every day. During one of these times they saw my watch; it was a fake Rolex watch. They said, ‘Oh, it’s Rolex’. Two or three days later they asked me to give them my watch. When I later asked where my watch was they promised to give it back to me but it never happened.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
‘On one occasion Latvian commandos checked the wallet of my husband with 1,000 dollars, took all the money from it and gave him the empty wallet back. We noticed that only later, as we had to look on the ground while they were checking our clothes.’
Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November
‘Every day the Latvians were asking us what Belarus border guards were doing, what we saw on the Belarus side and where they took us. So I had to be a spy for them, because otherwise they would beat me up. Every day the Latvians were checking everything and ordered us to take off all our clothes. They were scared that the Belarusians could put spying software inside. Belarus soldiers never asked me about Latvian soldiers. We were brought to the Latvian border by one or two young soldiers without guns. But on the Latvian side we were intercepted by 20 persons with night-vision devices; it looked like that they were sent there for something big. But the Belarusians were easy with us; they gave us food and sometimes cigarettes. By contrast, the Latvians even confiscated a lighter if we had one and we could not make fire. They wanted us to get cold. We had to look for Belarusian border guards and ask them for a lighter.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 Augustlate October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November
‘They played a political game with us. The Latvians asked me to give them information about Belarusians – for example, how they were dressed and where they were located. The Belarusians also asked us about the Latvians, but if we gave any information to them we would get beaten by Latvian soldiers.’
Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October -December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
‘I speak good English, so the Belarusians told me I had to work as a spy for them. I said I could not do so because Belarus had a dictator and maybe the Latvians would kill me in the forest if I bring any information. But then a Belarus soldier brought me to some place and put something on my clothes to reveal my location and intercept information when I speak with the Latvian army. I saw this and put it in the fire. If Latvians saw that they would hit me.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
The testimonies collected reveal that the interviewees were forced to live in inhuman and degrading conditions for several weeks or months and were continuously exposed to violence by the Latvian forces.

During my first weeks in the tent they hit me many times. After that they did not hit me anymore because I learned to play by their rules – not to speak, not to look up, not to make any wrong move. If they gave us food we took it. If they did not give us food we could not ask them for anything. If some people attack me in Iraq I can defend myself or run away. But here I was a refugee, I was asking for food and a place to sleep, and they were hurting me. And when they hit me they told me, ‘Don’t make any mistake, don’t defend yourself’. I had not seen any place like this. Even if the government catches Daesh, they put them in jail but do not do to them what Latvia did to us. I wish Latvia is never successful. 

One night when they were taking us to the forest the commandos hit a woman. She was the mother of [Interviewee N2]. They hit her and she yelled. They told her, ‘Don’t scream, just shut up and don’t make any noise. Don’t cry or we are going to beat you more’.

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 Augustlate October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November
‘The Belarusians were friendly with us. When they found us they said ‘Hi’ and ‘Welcome again’, and when they sent us back they said ‘Good-bye’ and ‘See you tomorrow’. And we were sent to the border by just one or two persons in civil clothes. But on the Latvian side there were too many people with huge guns. I don’t know why they were using these guns, we are normal people. And they come with police SWAT, not ordinary border guards. All the time they gave us orders – ‘Sit on your knees’, ‘Hand behind your head’, ‘Look down’, ‘Take off your clothes’, like if we were terrorists. 

They told me they did not care if we die or not as that was not important for their country. I was severely beaten up two or three times. At other times they did not hit me so hard – they said it is like a joke. My father broke his leg many years ago, and after I told Latvian soldiers his leg was getting worse, two of them wanted to hit me. One time they hit my mum with feet and I would have preferred to die rather than see that. I could not do anything. Her shoes were broken and they sent her to the forest without shoes. Later Belarus soldiers gave her shoes.’

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
'Once at 12am they brought us to a place in the forest close to the border crossing point and told us to sit there. It was raining heavily all night, and my children spent the night lying on the ground. I put all my clothes on them, and then after 4am a border guard came and gave us one green trench. 

In the morning people in black and military uniforms arrived. One of them started swearing at me and asked why I came to the Latvian side again. We replied we were only asking for asylum, nothing more. He started beating me – he dragged me to the ground and put his foot on my leg. He was dressed in military uniform. He took a gun and pointed at my head. After that they took my friend in the car and started beating him too.’

Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- September 2021).
‘Many times I saw the Latvians beating men and hitting them with electroshock. They punched me two or three times as well. That happened in November. They took us to the border and ordered to cross into Belarus. I probably did not have enough vitamins and could not walk fast, so they punched me on my back to make me move faster. They punched other women I was with, too.’
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
‘They used to take us to the tent for the night and bring us back to the forest at 4 or 5am. Sometimes the Latvians forced us to cross the border through the river. We cried and said, ‘Please, we are women and cannot swim’. The water was up to my chest but it did not matter to them. It was snowing already as they asked people I was with in the tent to cross the border through water. The men were regularly taken out of the tent, beaten up and hit with electroshock. We could not do anything; we cried and waited for the men to return. Sometimes they were beating them for several minutes, sometimes it lasted for 30 minutes or one hour. Those who hit them were commandos in masks and black uniforms.’
Interviewee N5, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
‘The Latvians beat the men up and hit them with electroshock. They did not hit women but nonetheless treated us badly. Once I had a headache and asked them for a tablet – they pulled me by my hair and pushed me aside.’
Interviewee N18 , female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August - late October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November
‘They used to take the men outside the tent and beat them by sticks and electroshock. We stayed in the tent and could hear them screaming and crying. And every time new people were brought to the tent they got beaten up. Everyone had to undergo this procedure.’
Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
‘They treated us worse than animals. We were not allowed to smoke or to look into their eyes, nothing. One person I was with did not know the rules and started smoking in the tent. They took him out of the tent and beat him very hard.’
Interviewee N14, male, spent several days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (OctoberNovember 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
‘The Latvian border guards handed us over to the commandos who treated us very badly. We lived in the tent like in a prison, as if we had killed someone. If we looked at them or asked for something – even to give us some food or water – we would get beaten immediately. We were not supposed to say anything at all, so we were silent like children. They were also always swearing at us [quotes some offensive words in Russian].’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of nationality in late November
‘Latvian commandos beat me up five times. At 3am in the morning they took us from the tent to the Belarus border and loaded 25 people in a small minibus. If they were taking us to the distant border pillar – for example, N214 - we were driving for around two hours. And we needed to hold our heads down. Once I told an army soldier I could not sit on my knees in the car as all people were on top of me and my knee hurt. When I got off the car he asked me where it hurt, and one of them hit me with a foot in my knees. Now I need a bone replacement, and the surgery is very expensive. On another occasion the commandos caught me near the door of the tent, hit me in my stomach and put me back in the tent. I could not breathe, had a blackout for a couple of minutes and threw up. 

One day they brought ten new people to the tent. We were now 45 persons in the tent and some of them did not have a place to sleep. I gave my place to a woman from Syria. One of the newcomers (also from Syria) was shouting. A soldier entered the tent and said he heard voices. I said we were just speaking about the place to sleep, because too many people came and maybe we needed two tents. He ordered me and the man who was shouting to come out of the tent, and three commandos beat me up. My nose was bleeding. They brought me back in the tent and the following morning ordered us to wake up and go to Belarus. I screamed, ‘Please, let me stay just for one day and have a rest because I do not feel my body’. They said, ‘F*** your body, go to Belarus’. 

Hitting in the head was an ordinary thing for them. That happened every day. If you ask them for something, you will have a problem – maybe they will not give you water and biscuits for two days. I have never seen a country like Latvia.’

Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
Asylum-seekers from Syria at the Latvia-Belarus border (presumably on the Belarus side). The picture was taken in early December and sent to their relatives to show they were alive. A representative of the Latvian NGO ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’ has confirmed the boots the people in the picture are wearing were previously delivered upon request to the Latvian State Border Guard.


Latvian soldiers gave us only biscuits and one bottle of water a day. There were different types of biscuits (Interviewee N11 has confirmed these included Latvia-produced Selga biscuits) and rice cakes. They were not tasty and we hated them but had to eat this as we were hungry. These were the worst days of my life. Belarus soldiers were better as they brought us bread or some other food. They also did shopping for us.’
Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
On the Latvian side we were only given small biscuits and 1.5 litre of water per person a day. At first the Belarusians did not give us any food but later they started to give us bread and other food, so that we could have protein or vitamins. They asked us not to tell the Latvians about that because then they would not give us any food, at all. Sometimes the Belarusians also let us go to a shop, or we gave them money and they bought food for us. They were cheating, of course – for example, we gave them 100 dollars or more but they brought us too little food. But that was good for us anyway because we did not eat anything for a long time. During my last month in Latvia (October 2021), the Latvians started to give us a little soup once in three days. I had lost 20 kilograms of weight during my time in the forest.’

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the ECtHR list

‘The Latvians gave us a package with three types of biscuits and water, just not to die. And they gave us a little soup every three days but I could not even feel it, it was just like water. We were not given anything else in Latvia.’
Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
'They only gave us water and biscuits in the tent. And once in three or four days they gave us a little soup. We did not have any fruits or protein, nothing. If the Belarusians did not give us food, we would have died. They gave us bread and a little meat – for example, one loaf of bread and piece of meat for three people. 

But on one occasion five persons [from our group] attempted to go back to Minsk. The Belarus border guards caught them on their way and did not give us any food for two days as a punishment. I saw people were dying and I told everyone, ‘Please don’t go to Minsk because otherwise they will not give us any bread’.

Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
The tent itself was dirty. There was a heating device inside but the tent was poorly ventilated and it was getting too hot. If we opened the tent’s door the commandos came and closed it. They said they would turn the heater off if we opened the door. And if they turned it off, they would not turn it on till the morning, and it was impossible to sleep like that. There was also no hot or cold water in the tent, toilet was outside and we had to ask for permission to go there.’

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November

‘The toilet was located several meters apart from the tent. The door of the tent always remained closed – we could not look outside. If we wanted to go to the toilet, we needed to stick the hand out of the tent and ask for permission. The soldiers accompanied us to the toilet; they put their hand on our heads and demanded us to look down. We were not given any water and could not wash our face or hands or anything. We were so dirty. I did not shower for three months.’

Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August - late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

‘The toilet was just a hole in the ground with sticks around it. There was the black plastic material wrapped around these sticks. The commandos were watching us even while we were sitting on the toilet and hit us if we looked them in the eyes. We did not have any possibility to wash ourselves in the tent. Once they took us to a river and told us to wash ourselves but it was very cold. I stepped inside the water but came out of it straight away because it was too cold. I did not shower for around three months and was able to do so only after they brought me to the Daugavpils camp.’

Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November

‘There was no water or soap, so we could not wash ourselves. One day one soldier brought us near the river, made fire and told all people to wash themselves. But it was already -2C and not everyone could do so.’

Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October - December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December 

The interviewees testify that in mid-December the Latvian authorities stopped bringing people to the tent, forcing them to live under an open sky despite the extremely low temperatures.

Air temperatures recorded in the Daugavpils region (August 2021-February 2022). Source: https://meteostat.net


'Later the Latvians did not bring us to the tent anymore and we slept in the forest. We kept moving back and forth between Latvia and Belarus. We were looking for Belarusian border guards to get some food, as they gave us bread and soup sometimes. The Latvians only gave us biscuits once in three days, nothing else. We were constantly walking to warm up. We could not stay at one place because it was so cold. We only survived because we could make fire – otherwise we would have died. We were sleeping in shifts for 2-3 hours, and two or three people had to keep the fire burning. Sometimes we could not make fire because the firewood was too wet to use, so we were simply walking back and forth. I have one kidney and spent two months in the forest'. 

Interviewee N15, male, spent over two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October 2021 -January 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-January 

‘When the Latvians first brought me to the tent at the end of October, they fingerprinted me, took my biometrics and checked my passport. They confiscated my phone and returned it only when I was sent back to Iraq. Some Belarusian border guards later allowed me to use their phone one or two times to call my parents and tell them I was alive. The Latvians did not use electroshock on me but did beat me with hands, feet and sticks. Sometimes this happened inside the car and sometimes in the forest outside the tent. 

Every morning at 4am they woke us up and drove us to the Belarus border. The Belarusians would then send us back. This was routine. In mid-December they stopped taking us back to the tent and we stayed outside. It was very cold, and we made fire during the night to survive. One or two people stayed awake and kept the fire burning. When the Latvian commandos arrived, they took us to the Belarus border by car – they didn’t take us to the tent but immediately returned us to Belarus. The Belarusians did the same. I have never seen life like this, I will never forget that. They are not human. I was in a group of eight people, we cried so much. We spent the New Year’s Eve in the forest under an open sky.’

Interviewee N16, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October 2021-January 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in January
‘I spent around one month on the Latvian border. Every day 15-18 people were taken from the tent to the border with Belarus. Around December 14 everyone was thrown out of the tent. They divided people into smaller groups (6-7 people in each group) and drove them to different border pillars. Following that, we stayed in the forest for around 18 days. Every day we were pushed back and forth – once it happened to me seven times a day. We spent nights on the Belarusian side in an unfinished house with no doors. It was very cold and we slept in this house for one or two hours. When Latvian border guards caught us they did not allow us to have a rest for more than 15 minutes and immediately forced us to go back to Belarus. During these days one person I was with even lost consciousness because of the cold. It was so cold I did not feel my fingers. I even bit my fingers to the point they started bleeding but I did not feel anything. Many people did not feel their back, arms or legs. The Latvians would help us a little only in case they believed we were in pain or sick. But usually they did not believe us. For example, I told them my leg hurt – they checked it but did not see any wounds. They told me I was telling lies and hit my leg with soldier boots. My leg still hurts now. On another occasion I told them I had stomach pain and they hit me in my stomach. We were hungry and could not endure beating but Latvian commandos still treated us this way.’
Interviewee N17, male, spent over one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (December 2021 -January 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in January
Ambassador of the United States to Latvia John L. Carwile, Head of Latvian State Border Guard Guntis Pujāts and Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva visiting the Latvia-Belarus border, 24 January 2022

Asylum-seekers at the Latvia-Belarus border (Latvian side). The photo was reportedly taken in the second half of January (the author has received the photo on 6 February). According to the persons in the picture, it was taken by Latvian police officers who agreed to send it to their relatives in Iraq to show they were alive (see also pictures below: note a Latvian police car in the background).


3. Forced voluntary return...