Russian forces are sending Ukrainian citizens to “filtration camps” before forcibly relocating them to Russia, according to accounts from two women who said they were transported into Russian territory from the besieged city of Mariupol last month.
“On March 15, Russian troops broke into our bomb shelter and ordered all the women and children out. It was not a choice,” said a woman who had been hiding with her family in a suburb of Mariupol since early March. “People need to know the truth, that Ukrainians are being moved to Russia, the country we are dealing with.”
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian troops of transporting several thousand residents of Mariupol through “filtration camps” and forcibly moving them to Russia via the Russian-controlled republics in eastern Ukraine. ‘Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the accusations, saying “such reports are lies”. Russian officials previously said that 420,000 people had been voluntarily evacuated to Russia “from dangerous regions of Ukraine and the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”.
The women requested anonymity because they feared for the safety of loved ones who are still in the heavily bombed city.
Their accounts, along with similar articles published by the Washington Post and the BBC and reports by human rights groups, contradict Russian claims that Ukrainians are not forcibly moved to Russia.
The southern port of Mariupol came under heavy fire from Russian forces shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, with many families seeking refuge in bomb shelters. Russian troops have since taken control of large parts of the damaged city.
After leaving her shelter, the first woman said she was taken by bus with “two or three hundred” other people to the border town of Novoazovsk in Russian-held territories in eastern Ukraine.
“Once we pulled over, we had to wait inside the bus for hours until we were ordered through a large tent complex, to what everyone called ‘filtration camps’. “.”
A satellite image captured by US firm Maxar Technologies last week showed tent camps set up in the Russian-held village of Bezimenne near Novoazovsk. Representatives of the two self-proclaimed Donbass republics said they have set up a “tent city of 30 tents” for Mariupol residents, which can accommodate up to 450 people.
A report by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a Russian government-owned newspaper, said that 5,000 Ukrainians were treated at the Bezimenne camp and subjected to checks to prevent “Ukrainian nationalists from infiltrating Russia disguised as refugees in order to avoid punishments “.
The woman described how she was photographed and fingerprinted once she entered the camp. She was then “extensively interrogated” by men who identified themselves as members of Russia’s FSB security service.
“They went through my phone; they asked me if I knew anything about the Ukrainian army, if I had any friends in the army,” she said. “They also asked me what I thought of Ukraine, Putin and the conflict. It was very degrading. »
After going through the “filtration camp”, which took a few hours according to the woman, the group was eventually taken to Rostov, a city 80 miles east of the Ukrainian border.
Once there, the group was told their final destination would be Vladimir, a town just over 100 miles east of Moscow.
But in Rostov, the woman decided to separate from the main group, telling the Russian guards that she had family who lived there. “They let me go without too much trouble. But for many, leaving just wasn’t an option,” she said.
The woman recalled that many people on the bus complained that they only had a few minutes to gather their belongings and often had no money or official papers, which made it difficult for them to leave Russia later.
After parting with the group, the woman first went to Moscow by bus, then took a train to St. Petersburg. She said she was now safe after walking across the border into an EU country.
The extent of forced deportations reported by Russia remains uncertain. The Helping to Leave Fund, a Russian-run group that serves the needs of people relocated to Russia from Ukraine, said it has received around 200 requests from deported Ukrainians asking for help.
“Each of these requests usually comes from an entire family, so the actual number of deportees is higher,” said Maria Ivanova, a representative for the group.
Ivanova said the group had seen an increase in requests for help from March 28 and had heard first-hand reports of “long lines” at “filtration camps”.
The reported evictions have raised alarm among international human rights groups.
“These people had no opportunity to evacuate to a safer place in Ukraine. Many found themselves in a situation where their only choice was essentially to cross into Russia or die as the shelling became more intense,” said Tatyana Lokshina, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
“Under international human rights law, displacement or forcible transfer does not necessarily mean that people were forced into a vehicle at gunpoint, but rather that they found themselves in a situation that left them no choice.”
Lokshina pointed to the Geneva Convention, under which “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory, are prohibited, whatever their motive.”
A second woman the Guardian spoke to gave a similar account of her being forced from Mariupol through a “filtration camp” in Novoazovsk.
“I never asked to be taken away. The filtration camps, the trip, it was very traumatic, ”says the woman, who left the city in a Russian bus on March 16.
She is currently in Rostov, planning her route out of the country.
Russian officials have been open about their efforts to relocate what they call “temporarily displaced Ukrainians”.
The Russian Defense Ministry reported almost daily on its efforts to evacuate Ukrainian civilians “trapped” in Mariupol.
Vladimir’s governor told local media that his city had taken in more than 1,000 “refugees” from territories “liberated” by Russia, including Mariupol.
Not everyone who was transferred from Ukraine to Russia said they were unhappy about doing so.
“I wanted to go to Russia; I’m glad to be safe. And my family lives here, so I was looking for how to get here,” said Vladimira, a third woman from Mariupol who spoke to the Guardian, who has since moved in with family members in Rostov.
Mariupol is only 60 kilometers from the Russian border and many of its inhabitants have relatives on the other side. While the invasion significantly reduced pro-Russian sentiment in the city, Vladimira said she welcomed the security she felt moving to Russia.
She also confirmed she had been through ‘filter camps’ but said they didn’t bother her as she was just ‘happy to be out of harm’.
“There is definitely a group of people who were expelled from Mariupol who will not mind being in Russia. Who is going to stay there,” said Ivanova of the Helping to Leave Fund. “But we know of hundreds of people displaced against their will. It is extremely worrying. »