Reconstructing a death at the Greek-Turkish border raises serious questions
In late February 2020, the Turkish government opened its borders with Greece in an attempt to pressure the European Union over support both for its intervention in Syria, as well as the millions of refugees Turkey hosts. Thousands of migrants and refugees were funneled to a single point on the land border between the two countries with the promise of an open route to Europe.
The Greek government responded by deploying its police and military to the region, with the backing of EU governments keen to avert a repeat of the 2015 so-called refugee crisis. Migrants were warned not to attempt to cross the border and the country suspended its asylum system. On March 4, after days of tension, violence escalated at the Kastanies-Pazarkule border crossing. Reports emerged of shootings and casualties. Turkish authorities stated that the Greeks “used live rounds and wounded five asylum-seekers.” Greece denounced these claims as “fake news”.
One man, a Pakistani national named as Muhammad Gulzar, was reported to have died.
Lighthouse Reports, Forensic Architecture and Bellingcat, in a joint investigation with Der Spiegel and drawing on research from a coalition of reporting partners including Pointer (KRO-NCRV) and Sky News, examined hundreds of videos and images, and spoke to eyewitnesses and forensic experts in order to reconstruct what happened on March 4.
Due to Greek government restrictions in Evros, few journalists had access to the location. Even fewer had equivalent access on both sides of the border. However, a sizeable store of visual evidence from the day does exist online. We relied on open source material in combination with multiple interviews with individuals present on the day or in contact with people who were.
Deploying advanced search techniques we identified videos of people wounded on the Turkish side of the border who claimed that Greek forces had shot them on the day in question. These were supplemented with details of how Gulzar came to be present at the border that day including documents from his family in Pakistan and corroborating materials from people who had known and worked with him previously in Greece.
This complex operation resulted in a reconstruction of March 4 across multiple platforms in Europe.
After weeks of investigating we were able to conclude that live rounds were fired along the relevant stretch of the border. Several people sustained injuries, and one person was killed. At least seven people were wounded on the Turkish side of the border fence within 37 minutes of each other. The wounded, and those helping them, all retreated away from the Greek forces and towards ambulances near the Turkish border crossing point.
One of these casualties, Muhammad Gulzar, died of his wounds. The bullet that Turkish authorities claim was removed from Gulzar’s body is consistent with those used by the rifles carried by the Greek soldiers deployed at the border at that time. Based on this evidence it is highly probable that the shots that killed Gulzar and, in all likelihood, wounded the remaining six casualties were fired from the Greek side.
Forensic Architecture used the video footage to build a 3D model and timeline and explained meticulously how we came to these conclusions. The Dutch investigative program Pointer (KRO-NCRV) used our findings to inform a 20-minute documentary. Der Spiegel wrote a cover story. Sky News produced a broadcast segment, as well as an interactive long read. Bellingcat published a detailed account of the findings, documenting the methodology used.
After the release of the investigation more than hundred MEPs from different political groupings demanded an independent inquiry into the shootings. On July 6 two Greek ministers had to face the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament to answer questions which included the March events. They denied the allegations and claimed it was fake news despite the overwhelming evidence we presented in our reports.
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Our investigations don’t end when we publish a story with media partners. Reaching big public audiences is an important step but these investigations have an after life which we both track and take part in. Our work can lead to swift results from court cases to resignations, it can also have a slow-burn impact from public campaigns to political debates or community actions. Where appropriate we want to be part of the conversations that investigative journalism contributes to and to make a difference on the topics we cover. Check back here in the coming months for an update on how this work is having an impact.