On September 15, 2021, Sidy Keita from Côte d’Ivoire and Didier Martial Kouamou Nana from Cameroon, boarded a canoe from Turkey bound for Greece. Although they made it to the Greek island of Samos, their bodies were found a few days later, washed up in the province of Aydin on the Aegean coast.
Interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, analysis of classified documents, satellite images, social media accounts and online material, as well as discussions with officials in Turkey and Greece, helped piece together this which happened during five days in September during which the two men died, probably victims of refoulement by the Greek authorities.
What happened to these men, who left their homes to escape political oppression and for a better life abroad, has been investigated by the Guardian, Lighthouse Reports, Mediapart and Der Spiegel .
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has often denied that pushbacks are happening. But there is growing evidence that potential asylum seekers are being illegally expelled from Greek territory before they have a chance to file asylum claims.
Keita, 36, left Ivory Coast after taking part in protests against President Alassane Ouattara. He arrived in Turkey in March 2020. Kouamou, 33, a mechanic in Cameroon, landed in Turkey last year, hoping to join his brother who had been living in France since 2014.
Like many before them, the two men traveled to the Basmane district of Izmir, a known place for people who want to be smuggled into Europe. They were among 36 who then boarded a dinghy from near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast in the early hours of September 15.
According to reports, the boat arrived on the northeastern shore of Samos around 7 a.m., just as the sun was rising. The area, Cap Prasso, is a peninsula with steep slopes and perilous drops into the water.
Lawyers working for the Human Rights Legal Project (HRLP) in Samos, 10 km from Cape Prasso, received an SMS from an unknown number informing them of the arrival of the dinghy, with photos taken ashore from a ship of the Greek Coast Guard spotted in the area. At 10:25 a.m., the HRLP sent an email to the local police, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, a member of the European Commission based on the island and the reception and identification service asylum seekers in Samos, informing them of the arrival.
The HRLP email, seen by the Guardian, asks that arrivals be given the assistance needed to register as asylum seekers on the island, as required by law. There was no response.
Shortly after the dinghy arrived, witnesses described hearing what sounded like gunfire. Panicking, the people on the canoe split up, climbing the hilly terrain to hide where they could. Eight managed to escape into the countryside but the other 28, including a baby, small children and a pregnant woman, were apprehended by the authorities. That afternoon, it is claimed they were loaded onto a coastguard boat, chased out to sea and thrown adrift on two life rafts, a well-documented form of pushback by Greek authorities.
Jean* and at least two other people were strip searched and beaten. Jean said at least one woman was subjected to an internal physical search by officers looking for money. “The police beat us with the utmost violence,” he said. “I received punches in the face and in the stomach. I was crying.” Pascaline* says she had her money stolen and her baby was thrown into the life raft “as if we were throwing a trash can”. They hit the people in front of us, they traumatized the children.
Both rafts were picked up by turkish coast guard a few hours later. The pregnant woman had given birth on the raft and gave birth shortly after being rescued.
Of the eight people who initially escaped authorities on Samos, four made it to a refugee camp on the island, while the other four were arrested. A woman was apprehended outside a monastery, given a bottle of water and thrown into the sea alone. She was rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard September 17.
After sleeping in the forest overnight, Keita, Kouamou and another man, Ibrahim*, were apprehended on September 16.
Ibrahim, a former member of the Cameroonian navy, said he was stopped on a road by people posing as police. They were asked for identification and stripped of their phones and money before being put in a car and taken to a port. Ibrahim said they were then loaded onto a speedboat, which he identified as a Rafnar, a vessel used by the Samos Coastguard.
After half an hour the boat stopped and Ibrahim says that one by one the men were pushed into the water. “I resisted,” he said. “They beat me properly before throwing me in the water.” He said he was swimming desperately, the waves helping to push him towards the Turkish coast and onto the beach a few hours from Kusadasi. He said he cried out for mercy before throwing up.
According to Ibrahim, Keita’s body washed away soon after. Friends said that neither Keita nor Kouamou could swim. Ibrahim attempted resuscitation but it was too late. Ibrahim stuck a stick in the sand next to Keita’s body and started walking along the coast.
He was arrested by Turkish police on September 18 and described to them the events that led to Keita’s death. “They pushed us all into the sea,” he told authorities. “They didn’t provide us with a raft or a boat.” He said that Kouamou had disappeared under the waves.
Later that day, Keita’s body was found by the Turkish Coast Guard. Two days later, they find Kouamou on the same beach. Ibrahim then identified the two bodies at the morgue in Izmir. Medical documents indicate that Keita drowned and Kouamou’s body was found in the sea, near the shore.
While it is impossible to fully verify Ibrahim’s story, two Greek officials with direct knowledge of coastguard operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that what he described was was already produced before, usually to smaller groups of asylum seekers. The rationale is to avoid using life rafts, which are expensive; any public tender for their replacement could raise questions. The two officials said refugees are usually given life jackets before being told to swim to Turkey.
Since December, the Turkish Coast Guard has recorded 11 rescues of people in similar circumstances.
Over tea in Izmir in October, Ibrahim said he believed it was partly thanks to God that he survived. “The sea is my friend, I’m not afraid,” he said. He has since returned to Greece, where he registered as a minor. The Guardian cannot verify his age. Months later, he is still haunted by what happened. “I feel like I left a part of me in the water,” he said.
Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer for the HRLP, is suing for criminal charges against those involved in the pushback on behalf of some of the 36 people who made the trip on September 15. “What is very dangerous for our democracy is police breaking the law,” he said. “My hope is, as a Greek lawyer, to restore the rule of law on the island of Samos, because that is what seems to have been lost.”
Lorraine Leete, of Legal Center Lesbos, added: “The pushbacks constitute atrocities against humanity for which Greece and the EU will have to respond sooner or later, given the tangible and accumulated evidence of the crimes committed on their borders.”
Kouamou’s body was returned to Cameroon, using the savings of his older brother, Séverin. He leaves behind a wife and two young children. “The news of his death has devastated us all,” said his aunt, Marinette. “His death traumatized me to have lost such a good son.”
Keita’s family could not raise the money to bring him back to Ivory Coast, and he lies in an unmarked grave in Izmir, thousands of miles from his home.
In a statement, the Greek police authorities said: “The Hellenic police authorities, following a strict disciplinary legal framework, are investigating every piece of information communicated to them relating to alleged incidents of ill-treatment at the borders, including allegations unprocessed returns (refoulements), so that the penalties provided for by law are imposed and similar behavior is avoided in the future. The allegations on the violation of the principle of non-refoulement do not correspond to reality and in fact undermine the work of the Hellenic Police in the operational border areas.
The Greek Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment.
*Names have been changed