The land border between Greece and Turkey is 212 kilometers long, with most of it running along the Maritsa River. There’s just one segment in the north where an 11-kilometer stretch of border fence runs between the two countries near Karaağaç.
In early March, just before the coronavirus took over the news cycle, this fence was the focus of headlines around the world.
On that early spring day, thousands of migrants were crowding the Turkish side of the border, while on the Greek side, security forces had taken up their positions. The acrid odor of tear gas filled the air and helicopters circled the area. People were shouting back and forth.
Muhammad Gulzar, 42, hadn’t slept well the night before, his wife Saba Khan, 38, would later recall, and he woke up hungry on March 4. Khan would have preferred, that morning, to return to Istanbul, from where the couple had started their journey in the hopes of making it to Europe. But Gulzar had talked his wife into making one final attempt to get across the fence. A short time later, Gulzar was dead, struck by a bullet in the chest.
Muhammad Gulzar and Saba Khan, both from Pakistan, had only recently got married, on Jan. 21. Just a few days after the shooting, Khan was sitting in a restaurant in Istanbul, her face buried in her hands. On her wrist was the watch that her husband had given her. Khan was in a state of deep desperation, wondering if Muhammad might still be alive if she had insisted on turning around and going back.
The deadly incident that unfolded in the first week of March along the border between Turkey and Greece has long since dropped out of the international headlines. Khan, though, can’t put it behind her – nor can the other families who lost relatives in those chaotic March days. At least two people died trying to cross the border into Greece, and dozens were injured, some seriously. And to this day, it still isn’t entirely clear who bears responsibility.
A propaganda war over the incident has broken out between Turkey and Greece. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan alleges that Greek security forces deliberately fired on the migrants, while the Greek government denies all such claims.
DER SPIEGEL reporters spent weeks reporting on both sides of the border, together with the research teams Forensic Architecture, Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat. The reporters interviewed two dozen witnesses, including refugees, border guards, politicians and doctors. They also reviewed official documents, including Muhammad Gulzar’s autopsy report, and evaluated more than 100 videos and photos taken by migrants at the border.
The findings of the reporting contradict the official versions, especially – on decisive points – the Greek account. Muhammad Gulzar’s death may well have been an accident, but it was a predictable accident. A reconstruction of the events surrounding his March 4 death reads as though both sides were eager to escalate the situation.
On Feb. 27, Russian fighter jets are believed to have killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in an attack on military posts in the Syrian province of Idlib. The Turkish authorities blocked both Facebook and Twitter, but they were unable to suppress news about the deaths for long. In response to the incident, Erdoğan convened a crisis meeting, which ended with a surprising decision: Turkey would be opening its border to Europe.
That border had been closed ever since the EU and Turkey had agreed to a pact years earlier that would sharply reduce the number of refugees making their way north to Europe. And by publicly breaching that deal, Erdoğan was likely seeking to distract from the problems his military was having in Syria, while at the same time blackmailing the Europeans for more money to care for the large numbers of refugees in Turkey. And the gambit seemed to have had the desired effect: Over the course of the next few days, there was little talk about the Turkish losses in Idlib.
At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, the bus station in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood served as a hub for migrants making their way to Europe, and now, refugees were once again boarding buses at the site. The news had spread on Facebook and WhatsApp that the gates to Europe had reopened, and more than 10,000 migrants had decided to see for themselves. In some instances, the Turkish authorities even chartered buses to transport migrants to the border.
Pakistan national Gulzar and his wife were among those who took a bus from Istanbul to the border. It wasn’t the first time that Gulzar had traveled to Europe. In 2007, he had made his way to Greece, where he ended up working for years – most of the time with a “tolerated” status from the immigration authorities. He was initially on his own, but was later joined by his oldest son. His wife at the time and four children remained in Pakistan. Gulzar repaired fireplaces in Greek homes, with his last boss, Nikolaos Tzokanis, describing him as honest and hard-working.
Things were going well professionally for Gulzar, but privately, something was amiss. He was married, but his true love, Saba Khan, lived in Pakistan, so he decided to separate from his wife and move back to Pakistan to marry Khan. Tzokanis says he asked Gulzar to wait until Khan received an official entry permit before returning to Greece. But that would have taken months and they didn’t want to wait that long. He says Gulzar told him: “I’ve made it to Europe before. I can do it again.”
Gulzar flew from Greece to Pakistan, where he and Khan married on Jan. 21, and a few days later, the newlyweds traveled to Turkey via Iran. They had big plans for their future in Greece: Khan wanted to work as a hairdresser and maybe even open up her own beauty salon. The only thing standing in their way were the Greek border guards.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis had only been prime minister of Greece for nine months, but the refugee crisis was already overshadowing his tenure. Migrants were living in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands and there had been repeated instances of violence against them. Mitsotakis was well aware that the asylum system would collapse for good if the number of refugees was to rise sharply. But that’s exactly what was in store now that Erdoğan had reopened the border.
Facing this dilemma, Mitsotakis suspended the right of asylum on March 1 for one month, a move lawyers would later deem illegal. He also dispatched 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 police officers to the north.
Gulzar and Khan believed Erdoğan’s claim that the border had been opened. But when they arrived at Pazarkule, it was like a battlefield. Thousands of people were camping outdoors while Greek security forces were firing tear gas and water cannons.
Khan says they never would have boarded the bus had they known what was awaiting them at the border, adding that they would have tried to get to a Greek island by boat instead. But now they were stuck at the border area. To keep pressure on the Europeans, Turkish gendarmes even prevented refugees from returning to Istanbul from Pazarkule.
The migrants grew increasingly desperate as a result, with some throwing rocks at Greek border guards. The BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, believes that Turkish agents mixed in with the crowds to exacerbate the situation. The Greeks clearly sought to keep the onslaught at bay – and not just with water cannons and tear gas. Several refugees told DER SPIEGEL that they had been shot at by Greek security forces.
One Syrian said his wife has been missing since Greek border guards stopped the family from crossing the Maritsa River. He claims that Greek officers fired at him several times and forcibly separated him from his wife. Another Syrian man, Mohammad al-Arab, died on March 2 along the Maritsa, more than 80 kilometers south of the Pazarkule border post. The research agency Forensic Architecture has determined through video analysis that al-Arab was shot. Two witnesses claim it was Greek soldiers who opened fire on him.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to the crisis area on March 3. For the first time in four years, the EU could no longer rely on Erdoğan to stop the refugees, and Greece, in the words of von der Leyen had become Europe’s “shield.” She made no mention of the accusations of violence against Greek security forces.
Elias Tzimitras always gets called in when there’s danger. He’s part of a Greek armed forces special unit that the military leadership had deployed at the Greek-Turkish border. The Greek security forces were organized in two lines: On the front line were the police officers with shields, batons and pistols, while behind them were soldiers with semi-automatic rifles. Tzimitras and his men.
As an officer, Tzimitras is forbidden from speaking to the media. As such, we have decided to keep secret his real name, rank and the name of his unit. Tzimitras reports that the situation at the border was extremely tense. He and his colleagues feared they might get kidnapped and said that some of the migrants were also armed. Tzimitras and his comrades worked in day shifts and night shifts, and they were constantly subjected to provocations by Turkish soldiers, Tzimitras says.
The government in Athens has denied that Greek security forces used live ammunition. Tzimitras, however, disputes such claims. “We fired both blanks and live ammunition,” he says. But he claims they were only warning shots into the air or the ground. Authorization to do so, he says, came from the military leadership.
Videos that have been evaluated by the forensics experts also prove that shots were fired with live ammunition on March 4. One video filmed on the Turkish side of the border and shown by Turkish state broadcaster TRT shows a fire at the border fence. Then shots ring out and a young man collapses.
The man filming the blurred images shouts in English: “Gunfire from the Greece army … I have seen someone who is shot.” Migrants can be seen fleeing from the fence, and a little later, men appear behind the fire at the fence – apparently Greek soldiers.
In a video from the Greek side, the same sequence of shots can be found. Two Greeks can be heard talking to each other off camera. “They aimed”, the first person says in it. “They aimed,” the second person confirms. “That’s the only way …”
In the video, the characteristic sounds of live ammunition can be heard: first a crack produced by the shock wave of the projectile followed by the sound of the muzzle blast. With blanks, you would only hear the muzzle blast. Steven Beck, an American weapons expert who reviewed the footage, is certain that the shots that can be heard in the video are live ammunition. According to his analysis, the intervals between the shots indicate it was a semi-automatic weapon. He believes the shooter was standing around 40 to 60 meters away from the camera. In all the available videos, it is only on the Greek side that individuals can be seen standing within a radius of 60 meters and carrying such weapons.
When Gulzar and Khan woke up after a restless night, the first altercations had already broken out at the border post and the air was full of tear gas. Khan could barely breathe.
That day, Gulzar wore a black jacket, a pair of blue jeans with holes and black, ankle-high boots with a zipper. He took his wife’s hand and they marched toward the fence together. “Do not attempt to cross the border,” Greek border guards warned over a loudspeaker. Khan watched as a man cut a hole in the fence just a few meters away from them. Some of the migrants used bolt cutters, which the Turkish gendarmes likely supplied.
The Greek soldiers stood parallel to the fence, with a few meters between them. They wore face masks and carried semi-automatic rifles. Shots could be heard every few minutes, including from semi-automatic weapons. But the men continue trying to break through the fence. A group of migrants carried the first injured person away, the man holding the left side of his face with his arm. The migrants placed his legs in a blanket to make it easier to carry him. When they reached the road, they put the injured man in a Turkish ambulance.
Gulzar and Khan weren’t far from the border fence. Gulzar spoke to the security forces in Greek and had just turned away, Khan says, when the fatal shot was fired. Her husband collapsed with his hand on his chest. “Get up,” she screamed at him, “get up!”
“The shot definitely came from the Greek side,” Khan says. She says she barely missed getting shot in the foot.
In the video, you can see people rushing to the injured Gulzar. His face is covered, but the zippered boots, the pattern of the torn blue jeans and the black jacket leave no doubt that it is Gulzar who is lying there on the ground.
“They killed him, lift him up!” the migrants shouted in Arabic. They pulled him up by his shirt and jacket, running as they carried Gulzar toward the street to the ambulance.
DER SPIEGEL spoke with two of the migrants who filmed the events that day. Both claim that Gulzar was shot and killed by the Greeks. One of the men, named Sobhi, says that a soldier shot Gulzar with an assault rifle. He can be seen in a video shortly after the incident. He says: “There’s a Pakistani who’s been shot in the shoulder with live ammunition. At the fence. The ambulance just took him away.”
Images from the Greek television station Skai TV show Greek soldiers along the fence near the place where Gulzar was shot and killed. They are carrying FN Minimi, M4 and M16 semi-automatic weapons, which fire 5.56-millimeter caliber bullets. According to the autopsy report of the Istanbul Institute of Forensic Medicine, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, it is precisely one of these bullets that was found inside Gulzar’s body.
The rattle of automatic weapons never seemed to stop on that day. Mobile phone cameras captured the sound, and more migrants started filming. Some fled the fence area in panic. Within four minutes, four injured men were carried away. Fourteen minutes later, a fifth was taken away. Some suffered from gunfire wounds.
One of the injured can be identified beyond any doubt. His name is Mohammad Hantou. Videos show him stumbling across the field, holding his head with one hand. When he falls down, other men help him up and support him.
DER SPIEGEL met with Hantou at the hospital at Edirne one day later. His brother Riad was with him, and Hantou had a bandage on his right ear. Two pieces of shot from a shotgun struck him there, one of them destroying a bone behind his ear, he says. That’s what the doctors told him. Hantou is certain that Greek security forces fired on him that day.
The university hospital in Edirne is located only 14 kilometers from the border post. Gulzar arrived at the hospital’s emergency room a half hour after he was shot and the doctors tried in vain to reanimate him. They declared him dead 45 minutes later.
When Saba Khan received the news, she collapsed on the sidewalk next to the hospital, as can be seen in a video shot by a CNN camera team. It shows Khan sobbing, screaming and banging her head against a car repeatedly. She will say later that she believed right to the very end that Gulzar would survive.
When contacted by DER SPIEGEL for a statement, the Greek government rejected all the accusations, dismissing them as “Turkish propaganda.” Greece has the “right to protect its borders,” the government said in a written statement.
The European Union member states have been tightening their migration policies since 2015 and they have ceased conducting rescue missions in the Mediterranean, but Gulzar’s death nonetheless marks a turning point. In his case, border guards not only failed to help – in all likelihood, they themselves were the ones who killed him.
It’s quite possible that Gulzar was shot accidentally, that he was hit by a ricochet. But it is also the responsibility of the authorities to determine exactly what happened. By dismissing all reports on the attacks against migrants as fake news, however, the Greek government is making it impossible to uncover all the facts.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2020 (May 09, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Back at the restaurant in Istanbul, Khan swipes through the photos on her mobile phone. She has retained a lawyer to pursue the case – and she’s prepared to go all the way up to the European Court of Human rights if she has to. It would then be up to the judges to deliver what politicians have failed to: justice for Muhammad Gulzar.
With reporting by Usman Mahar