Forced to the floor of the plane, a knee to his head, Zoran was told he would be taken to Rwanda no matter what. The 25-year-old Kurd, strapped into a restraining harness “like a dog”, was one of the few asylum seekers to be taken on to the controversial deportation flight before it was grounded at the last minute after European judges intervened on Tuesday night.
“I felt like I was going to die,” says Zoran. “It felt like nothing I have ever gone through before.” He says he begged security guards not to force him on to the aircraft. In audio of a phone call he managed to make to a friend, Zoran can be heard screaming in pain. He says others were shouting too.
“The officers told me if you try to escape or run away your situation will only become more terrible,” says Zoran, who arrived in Britain by boat 40 days ago after fleeing political persecution.
“I told them I didn’t want to go there but I had a belt on my stomach and I was handcuffed. If I go back to Iran the government will kill me.”
The grounding of the plane was the end of days of political and legal drama, injunction after injunction granted for 37 asylum seekers that meant they would not be part of the flight to central Africa under the prime minister’s plan to deter migrants from crossing the Channel to reach the UK.
But for the men scheduled to be on the flight from Boscombe Down, near Salisbury, it was the culmination of a day filled with uncertainty, trauma and terror – and only a brief moment of respite before ministers once again raised the threat of deportation to Rwanda.
‘What crime have I committed to be treated like this?’
It was around 2.30pm on Tuesday when officers knocked on the door of Mohammed’s cell at Colbrook removal centre, near Heathrow, and told him he was being taken to Rwanda – a moment he had hoped would never come.
“They used their mobile phone to translate,” says the Iranian Kurd. “They asked me, ‘Do you need a harness?’ I wrote, ‘No, I want to live among you, why would I try to hurt you?’
“They did it in total secrecy. I never saw anyone else until I was actually on the plane.”
The 45-year-old arrived in Britain last month after fleeing religious persecution, but still worries about the safety of his wife and daughters, who remain in Iran. Moments before the knock at his cell, he spoke to his wife.
“It was as if we were saying goodbye for the last time. It was very painful,” he says.
Mohammed was led out of the removal centre and into an escort van, where he says he was joined by five officers – two in the front and three with him in the back of the vehicle.
“It felt like I was going to be executed,” he says of the 90-minute journey to the military aircraft testing site .
On arrival, he says he was kept in the van for hours, a camera recording his every move. ”I was just sitting in there,” he says. “I didn’t even have permission to get some fresh air unless I wanted to go to the bathroom.
“I was really puzzled. I was thinking, ‘What crime have I committed to be treated like this?’ It was very humiliating.”
‘I had finally felt safe’
While Mohammed sat in a van awaiting his fate, so too did other men pulled from their cells. Taha, 36, says when officers came to the detention centre he was so afraid he passed out.
“I could not breathe so they had to take me from the detention centre by stretcher,” he says. “I also could not do anything because they used handcuffs.”
The father-of-four, who landed on British shores on 17 May after fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan, says he was given the news he would not have to get on the flight only just before 10pm.
“I beg the UK government to take me out of this detention centre because I feel terrible,” he says from his cell. “I would rather choose death instead of being taken to Rwanda.”
Rasool, a 25-year-old Iraqi Kurd, says he felt suicidal when at around 5pm the security forces came to take them to the airport.
“You can’t compare it to death, death is better. I never thought this would happen to me, that they would take me to another country so far away from everything that I know,” he recalls.
“I had finally felt safe when I arrived in the UK on 23 May, I knew it was a democratic country and now I know that is a lie.”
He says that at first he refused to leave the detention centre and go to the airport but was manhandled by the security forces.
“They said they would take me by force if I didn’t come. Three officers then attacked me, pulling my hands and my neck. They told me if I made any movement or tried to escape they would restrain me, they would tie me up. It reminded me of the traffickers,” he says.
The Home Office says physical force and restraint should only be used after a risk assessments and that it reviews all uses of force to ensure it is proportionate and justified, adding: “Our staff and escorting providers are rigorously trained to ensure the safety of returnees throughout the removal process.”
At around 7.30pm Rasool got a call from his solicitor telling him that he had been granted an injunction and his ticket had been cancelled, but the officers did not believe him and so for several more hours he had to sit, waiting.
“At around 9.45pm – at the last minute when we were ready to get on the plane – one of them came to me and said my flight had been cancelled. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
‘I didn’t want to look back’
Shortly before, at around 9.20pm, Mohammed had been the first asylum seeker led on to the plane. As he approached the aircraft, escort officers surrounded him; one on either side and one behind. They were among many more guards involved in the operation.
He says: “There were so many other people. They had yellow fluorescent waistcoats on. It felt like spectators, watching.
“I didn’t want to look back, but I could hear other people resisting and screaming. I could hear one person saying, ‘My hand hurts! Let go of me!’”
Once all deportees were on board, along with dozens of escort and security staff, they waited for around 40 minutes, engine whirring, according to Mohammed.
“Either side of me on the plane there was a security guard. The rows behind and in front of me were empty. I couldn’t speak to any of the others,” he says. “Two others on the plan were still quite distressed. I knew one of them.
“At that point I could do nothing for them but to pray and I was praying for them to be strong and to be calm.”
Shortly before 10pm the fateful moment came: a member of staff on the flight announced that it would not be taking off.
“Some of the security guards and others were actually happy. They were hugging us. They were congratulating us,” says Mohammed. “It was clear they were just trying to obey orders. It wasn’t something that even they were comfortable with.”
He describes a mixture of emotions running through him as he stepped off the plane: “I was feeling happy and relieved. I was also still unsure of what the future holds.
“We couldn’t share our feelings with each other. We were each feeling it on our own. I really would have loved to hug the others but I couldn’t.”
Forcing people onto the flight amounted to “pure torture”, according to Karen Doyle, of Movement for Justice, who has been in contact with some of the asylum seekers.
She says: “This is a cycle of trauma on top of trauma for already traumatised individuals who have risked everything, who have fought through multiple obstacles and barriers to get to the UK.”
Within hours of the failed deportation attempt, Priti Patel vowed to push ahead with the controversial plan. “We believe that we are fully compliant with our domestic and international obligations, and preparations for our future flights and the next flights have already begun,” she told MPs on Wednesday.
Mohammed says: “This policy is very self-centred. We were the guinea pigs, but fortunately it didn’t go ahead.
“I can’t say I’m not worried about still being sent to Rwanda, but I hope the support we’ve received means it won’t happen.”
Names have been changed to protect identities