Ukrainians in shock after being forced into Russian territory by gunpoint

By Caravanserai and AFP

A wounded woman arrives from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a registration and processing area for internally displaced persons in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 3. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

A wounded woman arrives from Mariupol, Ukraine, at a registration and processing area for internally displaced persons in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 3. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

WARSAW, Poland -- Some residents of the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol who managed to escape are saying they were given no choice but to travel to Russia in what the Kyiv government regards as "deportations".

After spending weeks in a Mariupol basement and following the death of her father, who was killed in a rocket attack, Tetyana decided to leave her city to try to save her nine-year-old daughter.

With no mobile network or any possibility of communicating, she took advantage of a lull in the shelling to go to an assembly point arranged by pro-Russian authorities to find out about exit routes.

There, she was told going to Russia was the only option.

A destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, is shown May 18. [Olga Maltseva/AFP]

A destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, Ukraine, is shown May 18. [Olga Maltseva/AFP]

"We were in shock. We did not want to go to Russia," the 38-year-old accountant said on the phone from Riga, Latvia, where she has since sought refuge with her family.

"How can you go to a country that wants to kill you?"

The forced relocations bring to mind the paranoid and punitive policies of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Stalin sent substantial populations of ethnic Poles, Germans, Koreans and Crimean Tatars, among others, on squalid, crowded trains from European Russia and the Soviet Far East to Central Asia because he did not trust them in the years before and during World War II.

'Brutal interrogations'

Russia has forcibly deported more than 1.18 million Ukrainians, including at least 200,000 children, to Russia or Russian-controlled territory, Ukrainian Ombudswoman for Human Rights Lyudmyla Denisova said May 9.

Witness testimony attests to "brutal interrogations" in the camps, said US Ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Michael Carpenter.

"Accounts of this brutality and forced displacement are happening right now, as we speak, and these actions amount to war crimes," he told the organisation in Vienna.

Russia's so-called "filtration centres" are "located in schools, vocational schools, correctional facilities and other sites in the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions", Valeriya Chernysh, a 19-year-old dance teacher from Mariupol, told Caravanserai in May.

Chernysh, her brother and their parents were taken to the village of Nikolske in Donetsk province to go through the "filtration" process before they fled to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

"Russian FSB [Federal Security Service] workers do the filtration," she said. "They ask what you think of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They photograph your retina and take fingerprints ... The filtration can take around five to six hours."

After "filtration", Russians divide the Ukrainians into three groups: those who support the Russian regime, those who have no specific position and those who do not support the Russian regime, according to Chernysh.

"They're taken away and interrogated, and I don't know what happens to them after that," she said. "Those who 'pass' the filtration process get a document or certificate they can use to either go to Russia or move around Mariupol."

'You can't really say no'

A Russian Defence Ministry official, Mikhail Mizintsev, confirmed to AFP there were one million Ukrainian civilians transferred to Russia.

Like Tetyana, two other families from Mariupol -- where the Ukrainian government says 20,000 people were killed -- said they too were forced to go to Russia.

Svitlana, an employee in a large industrial concern, also hid in a basement with her husband and parents-in-law in Mariupol until some Russian soldiers ordered them to a part of the city fully in Russian hands.

"When an armed man tells you that, you can't really say no," said the 46-year-old, who has since been able to travel to Lviv in western Ukraine.

Her family was initially taken to Novoazovsk, a small town near Mariupol that is in the hands of Russia-backed separatists.

There they stayed for four days in a school.

They were then transferred to Starobesheve, where they were put up in a crowded community centre where people slept on the floor.

"The worst was the smell of dirty feet, dirty bodies. It stayed on our things even after we washed them many times," Svitlana said.

Three days later, the family was interrogated in a building occupied by separatist police.

They had to answer written questions about whether they had relatives in the Ukrainian army, their fingerprints were taken and they had to hand over their phones for checks.

In a separate room, the men had to undress to show they did not have any Ukrainian patriotic tattoos or combat wounds -- a sign that they might be in the military.

"My husband had to take off everything except his underwear and his socks," Svitlana said.

"We also deleted all photos and social media from our phones," she said, fearing possible repercussions because of her "pro-Ukrainian position".


Ivan Druz, 23, who left Mariupol with his half-brother in April, suffered the same treatment in Starobesheve.

He was then hoping to go to territory controlled by Ukraine but after much moving around within Russian-occupied areas, Druz, who is now in Riga, was told it was not possible.

"At first they tire you out, and then they tell you that you can leave in only one direction," he said.

After arriving at the Russian border, he had to undress and answer questions about chats with his aunt in Ukrainian.

"They asked me why she was writing to me in Ukrainian" and "wanted to check that I was not a Nazi", he said.

Once in Russia, the families of Tetyana and Druz were sent to Taganrog, about 100km from Mariupol.

Just after arriving, they were told by officials that they had to travel by train to Vladimir -- about 1,000km further north.

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Not only did they come and destroy entirely peaceful cities and quite apolitical people, but they also forcibly took these people to the country they came to kill them from. It's horrible to imagine what kind of fate awaits them.


The word "filtration" alone makes you terrified; all the scary books and movies about WWII come to mind immediately. How is it possible that we live in this time as history is repeating itself? And its most terrifying pages are the ones being repeated.


I read a story about my acquaintances who were removed to Taganrog. They were told they either would go there or they would be interrogated. Interrogation implied you'd be killed. They luckily got out only because they had a vehicle in working order and managed to flee from Taganrog and return to Ukraine via Abkhazia. But it's scary reading about what they went through, let alone surviving something like this.


The scariest thing is that people now have this trauma till the end of their days - those who were lucky to survive in the horrible conditions created by the "great rescuers." People in Mariupol built the city so well after the Soviet times; they made many things there. Businesses, reconstruction of the central square, new festivals... We were there on vacation; it was a splendid town. It's a horrible feeling when you recognise the town we visited only about a year ago in the photos of ruins!


It's another Russian war crime, and it has no statute of limitations.


The scariest thing is they also hid and deleted all info about a lot of them, and killed those who could speak about it.