‘I’ve never been so scared’ Ukrainian refugees give firsthand accounts of ‘filtration camps’ run by Russian troops
According to Russian officials, roughly 1 million people have been forced to evacuate from Ukraine into Russia since Moscow began its full-scale invasion on February 24. In many areas, evacuating civilians into Ukrainian-controlled territory is simply impossible due to Russian shelling. Left with no other way to safety, refugees are being forcibly deported to Russia via the Kremlin-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and occupied Crimea. Along the way, they are subjected to a lengthy “filtration” process run by Russian troops, which often involves spending several days in camps. In interviews with Meduza, Ukrainian refugees gave firsthand accounts of how this system works.
Guitarist Vitalii arrived in Mariupol with his wife and one-year-old daughter on the day the all-out war began. They thought moving in with relatives in the city would be safer than staying in their nearby village. They spent the next 40 days “either in the apartment, or in a basement.” And a shell hit their car almost immediately.
The city lost stable cell service quickly, making it difficult to find out how to try and evacuate.
“We found out about the evacuation bus from a friend by chance and decided to try our luck. We heard that it would be possible to leave at 6:00 o’clock in the morning on April 5 — during a [humanitarian] ceasefire. We were lucky, we were able to get to a bus that was going to Nikolske,” Vitaly told Meduza.
Located about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Mariupol, the town of Nikolske is under the control of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” DNR troops searched all of the men upon arrival, referring to the inspections as “filtration.”
“In turns, we went into a trailer, where two soldiers checked everything: your phone, tattoos, personal belongings,” Vitalii recalls. When he entered the trailer, there were already two men inside, stripped down to their underwear. One was standing with his hands behind his head, facing the wall; the other was sitting on the floor in a corner.
“As far as I understood, they were recognized as participants in some anti-Russian rallies. But before that [acquaintances] had advised me to delete all messenger apps before going to Russia — and this [a “clean” phone] became a problem. It took me a long time to prove that I didn’t have anything to do with the army. When I was stripped, the soldiers saw my tattoo of an American eagle and asked me about it for a long time. But in the end they let me go,” Vitalii said.
As he was exiting the trailer, one of the soldiers suddenly asked Vitalii what he was going to “give him.” Vitaly had a flashlight with him, so he handed it over. After that he was let through.
From Nikolske, Vitalii was sent through DNR-controlled territory to the Russian city of Taganrog. He was subjected to the same “filtration” and interrogation procedures at a few more checkpoints along the way.
In the ‘pen’
Before Russian troops occupied Berdyansk, Konstantin (whose name has been changed at his request) ran a business selling auto parts. “My business collapsed, because it turned out nobody needed it anymore. And deliveries from abroad stopped,” he explained.
Konstantin quickly ran out of money. “Buying groceries at a decent price was only possible when they were brought in by farmers from neighboring villages. The prices rose from day to day — a pack of detergent started to cost six dollars. Residents of Mariupol came [to our city] who had managed to flee under shelling. They bought up everything we had and then went on to Zaporizhzhia. A humanitarian disaster emerged very quickly, but I hoped for the best until the end,” he recalled.
Konstantin decided to leave with his wife and child. The family wasn’t able to get to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia due to shelling. The only safe option was to go to Russia through Crimea (the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014).
Konstantin saw a message circulating in local chat groups about an evacuation bus that still had space. The family left Berdyansk on April 28. At the border with Crimea — in the village of Chonhar, in the Kherson region — they went through standard passport control. Konstantin’s wife and child had no problem getting through, but he was pointed towards a door in a fence that was completely covered in camouflage netting. No one gave him back his passport.
Once inside the fence, Konstantin found himself among several hundred other men, all waiting their turn for “filtration.” There were benches and chairs inside the wooden “pen” — as Konstantin called it — but no one was sitting down.
“On a bench near the entrance were two boxes of passports. The soldiers picked out a random passport and quietly said the surname, which was relayed inside. Everyone was afraid of missing their [name],” Maksym, another man who went through this same “filtration point,” told Meduza.
“By the time the surname reached the addressee it could turn from ‘Kovalchuk’ to ‘Petraichuk’,” Maksym continued, explaining that those who missed their names were left waiting for hours on end. “The same thing happened to those who dozed off. If a surname was called three times and no one answered, they simply grabbed the next passport. And so we stood [there] until nightfall. There was a fence around us and gravel on the ground. Half of the people were in t-shirts, and it was cold outside — around 13 degrees [Celsius, or 55 degrees Fahrenheit].”
Konstantin was interrogated for about an hour. The soldiers asked where he planned to stay in Russia. He said that he would stay with one of his wife’s relatives. The soldiers responded by demanding he provide her name and documents. Konstantin didn’t know this relative personally and asked for his phone, so he could call his father-in-law for clarification. He couldn’t get a signal — accompanied by a Russian soldier, he walked around the grounds of the border checkpoint until he could connect to the network. Then the soldiers began to inspect his tattoos.
“I have a [tattoo of] an eight-point star, it’s a geometric icon for Scorpio, my zodiac sign. It confused them. One of them suggested that it was the Star of David. I said that the Star of David has six points. Then we went to the next officer. They didn’t believe my explanation, but in the end I managed to convince them. Then they suggested calling my wife, but I told them that she’s pregnant and persuaded them not to call her. In the end they let me go. I’ve never been so scared,” Konstantin said.
Maksym had to wait inside the “pen” for nine hours. During the interrogation, they spoke to him “exclusively in obscenities,” he recalled: “They asked if I drink, if I smoke, if I cheat on my wife, if my wife smokes…”
Maksym’s phone was carefully inspected: “They asked questions about literally every photo.” Then one of the soldiers said: “Either give up everyone who’s serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces or the Territorial Defense, or you’ll go fight for our side. People like you are immediately thrown into the first line [of defense]. You’ll dig trenches there, and then you’ll die.”
“I told him that if I had such acquaintances, I would say so, if only to see my wife and child at least one more time. But all of the soldiers left the city in the first days of the war — only civilians remained. In the end, he handed over my phone and passport and said he was only letting me go because of my son,” Maksym recalled.
Alexander is 19 years old. He and his family spent more than a month in a basement bomb shelter after a shell landed 100 meters (110 yards) from their home in Mariupol on the very first day of the full-scale war.
On March 29, Alexander and his loved ones decided to flee — through a DNR checkpoint where evacuation buses from Russia had arrived.
The family had to travel 10 kilometers (six miles) to the checkpoint on foot. There, they were told that women and children were being given priority; men would only be evacuated if there were leftover seats on the bus. Whether the men were evacuating on their own or with their families made no difference.
Alexander’s family decided to go to Samilove — a DNR-controlled village in the Novoazovsk district — and try to get to Russia from there. The line for evacuation in Samilove was enormous. Alexander and his family were stranded there for several days.
“We were put up in the [nearest] kindergarten. The kindergarten’s staff looked after us. Three times a day, they fed us the standard meals from CIS schools and kindergartens: soups, kasha, cutlets, and cereals. It wasn’t chic, but after Mariupol all hot food was delicious,” Alexander recalled.
Then the family was told that they couldn’t go to Russia “just like that.” The nearest “filtration point” was in Starobesheve, another DNR-controlled village in southeastern Ukraine.
“The days in Starobesheve were hellish,” Alexander recalled. “The conditions there weren’t anything like in Samilove.”
Women with small children were again settled in a kindergarten — everyone else was placed in “some kind of” recreation center, Alexander said, where they had to sleep on the floor. There was no bathroom; there was only a working toilet outside. The canteen, which offered free meals, was a three-kilometer (nearly 2-mile) walk away.
Alexander’s turn came on his third day in Starobesheve. First, he had to fill out a form that asked for his personal information, as well as questions about his “relationship to the Armed Forces of Ukraine” and contact with Ukrainian military personnel. Then he had to give fingerprints and palm prints, and have his photo taken. The final step was an interrogation and “visual inspection.”
“The FSB officer who interrogated me looked like a character from a movie about Russian security officials: overweight and exhausted, [with] the latest iPhone,” Alexander recalled. “He was interested in my possible ‘connections with extremist groups’ — among everyone I spoke to, this question was put to me and several other people who looked informal. My counter question about what they meant by extremism and which groups they had in mind was met with silence and a spiteful look.”
In the end, Alexander received a “travel voucher” for evacuation to Russia. Meduza is in possession of one of these documents. On one side, it has the person’s full name, date of birth, and what appears to be a serial number assigned to those who have gone through “filtration” (the number assigned to the person who provided Meduza with the voucher was around 700,000). The back of the voucher has the word “Fingerprinted” stamped above the date of the fingerprinting and the signature of the person who performed it.
Alexander and his family were then sent to a temporary accommodation point near the border with Russia, where there were several tents equipped with tables, chairs, and electrical sockets. The refugees were fed instant noodles and their names were logged. Then they were taken to Taganrog by bus.
“In Taganrog, I connected with relatives — they supported and helped us while we were there. But on the streets I got dirty looks because of my Ukrainian accent. You had to be careful not to say too much. After Ukraine, where I could say what I wanted, where I wanted, I felt like I had a gag in my mouth.”
Alexander and his family have since left Russia — they went to Georgia.
“By all appearances, there are two types of ‘filtration points’. The first is something like a border checkpoint with a separate room where people are taken for interrogation. The second type is the camps where people live [prior to ‘filtration’]. How people are sent to one place or the other is unclear. During the interrogations, they ask the same questions for hours, but with different wording. They basically boil down to your relationship to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service], and Russia. They take your device and check it somewhere for several hours,” explained Kirill Zhivoy, one of the organizers of Volunteers Tbilisi — an initiative that helps refugees from Ukraine. Volunteers Tbilisi, which collects humanitarian aid and helps with relocation and housing, has assisted some 4,000 people already.
Number 1,300 and something
Yulia from Mariupol hid in a basement with her two children and 30 neighbors for 36 days. A missile destroyed her home and a shell hit the medical lab where she worked, killing her colleagues. Her husband went off to fight.
Yulia and her children managed to leave Mariupol in early April, also through the town of Nikolske. At the time, she said, it was almost impossible to evacuate to Ukrainian-controlled territory — Russia just didn’t open humanitarian corridors.
Yulia and her children were “1,300 and something” in line for “filtration.” They thought they’d have to wait at least a week, but it later turned out that it was possible to undergo a check at the border with Russia. That same day, they were sent to Rostov in a convoy of eleven buses.
“At the border they summoned one person from each family and asked them to prepare gadgets and passports. They asked me for my surname, if I had any connection to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and if I was married. I replied that I didn’t live with my husband, and that I had nothing to do with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They said they’d find out more about me, but let me go almost immediately. They didn’t even look at my phone,” Yulia recalled. Her 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were not interrogated.
Natalya, 59, escaped Mariupol through the “filtration point” in Starobesheve (her name has been changed). She fled along with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. They had to wait in line for “filtration” for about 12 hours. They sat in their car the entire time.
“First they bombed everything [in Mariupol] and then they took our fingerprints and palm prints as if we’re some kind of criminals. They looked through my whole phone and interrogated my son for two hours, as if he was guilty of something,” Natalya recounted, unable to hold back her tears.
Her son Denys said that his interrogators looked through the entire contents of his phone and asked him to comment on almost every message. More than anything, they were interested in why he, a man of about 40 with a strong build, wasn’t serving in the military and didn’t go fight.
When speaking to Meduza, Denys mentioned several people who weren’t release after undergoing “filtration,” but he knew nothing about their fate. “I only know that everyone who doesn’t make it through ‘filtration’ is being taken to Donetsk for further checks. Nobody knows what happens to them next,” he explained.
‘People might not know they’ll be taken to Russia’
Maria (whose name has been changed) is a volunteer for Helping to Leave. She communicates with Ukrainian refugees regularly, and told Meduza about several “filtration camps” — including in Novoazovsk, Bezimenne, Nikolske, and Donetsk.
“The conditions there aren’t very good. People are put in classrooms in schools, where there’s nothing but desks. At best, some of the local residents bring them blanket[s]. It’s said that the food there is of poor quality, sometimes it’s expired. There’s many references to outbreaks of disease in the camps, especially among children. People complain that the toilets look like cesspools. We’ve heard several times that freedom of movement is limited in these places and people need to write applications to the camp administration in order to leave its grounds,” she said.
According to Maria, people now have to wait a long time to undergo “filtration” — up to two weeks.
“[In] the vast majority of cases, [evacuation] into Russian territory is not a voluntary choice,” she underscored. “Even if there are no machine guns, no one will choose ‘filtration’ voluntarily. Oftentimes, people aren’t told where they’re being taken at first. People might not know that in the end they’ll be taken to Russia.”
According to a Meduza source close to the DNR authorities (who is directly involved in the “filtering” and forcibly deporting Ukrainians), those who don’t pass the first round of “filtration” are detained for more thorough checks. Allegedly, many “are released quite quickly.” The rest — that is, those who the DNR authorities believe are actually associated with the Ukrainian Armed Forces — are sent to remand prisons on the territory of the self-proclaimed “republic,” he said.
“There are very few of them, only a handful. There are also women. There are sometimes snipers among them too, so they check [for] calluses,” the source claimed. Earlier, Petro Andryushchenko, an advisor to Mariupol’s mayor, said that “between five and ten percent of men” don’t pass “filtration” and are taken to Donetsk. The DNR’s information ministry has yet to respond to Meduza’s questions about this information.
Yuri Mezinov — the deputy board chairman of the Rostov regional branch of the A Just Russia party — traveled to Mariupol along with humanitarian aid and “helped residents of the Donbas leave for Russia.” He told Meduza that Ukrainians who didn’t pass “filtration” are currently “participating in investigative activities” and are “helping find those responsible for [committing] genocide” in the Donbas. (Russian investigative authorities have not announced any such measures.)
Russian officials — including Vladimir Putin — have repeatedly made unsubstantiated allegations of “genocide” to justify Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Yuri Mezinov echoed these claims in his comments to Meduza, accusing the Ukrainian government of “turning a blind eye.” “To make matters worse, the government of Ukraine released from prison criminals [convicted] under such articles that it raises the question of their sanity,” he added. “Do you really think that we should let this rabble into peaceful Russia?”