One Ukrainian family’s perilous journey through Russia’s ‘filtration camps’

Goal Feb. 24, she realized, was different. Soon Russian jets were flying overhead. As the bombing intensified, Oksana — who, like the other people in this story, requested that last names not be used — grew concerned about the safety of her children. Her ex-husband called and suggested they all meet at his parent’s apartment building, which was built after World War II and had solid walls and a base. They grabbed a few personal items amid the explosions and ran.

But they didn’t feel safe there. When they heard that people were gathering in a fortified bomb shelter beneath the neighborhood’s House of Culture building, they decided to move.

Two days later, in the building’s underground rooms, she found other members of her family, including her 24-year-old niece Daria, along with some 60 other people. They didn’t know it at the time but they would all spend the next three weeks in the chilly shelter, in the dead of winter, without once stepping foot outside.

Food and water were scarce, the women said. Daria said the family relied on her grandfather, who had been a military doctor in Soviet times, to bring them bread and whatever else he was able to gather. They huddled together for warmth in the darkness, using a flashlight to illuminate the shelter when the electricity went out. Daria’s younger sister, Marina, sketched their experience in her diary, illustrating in gray pencil the dark and terrifying situation. Over the next days, the House of Culture’s walls were pounded with artillery shells. Daria feared the ceiling would collapse. “It became clear that this wasn’t a safe place. They were actually targeting the building,” she said.

Daria, a freelance book editor, said the 20 days they spent huddled a cold, dark bomb shelter “was a nightmare.”

But what came after was hell.

Daria and Oksana told POLITICO that they emerged from the shelter to find Russian troops silhouetted by the first sunlight they had seen in weeks.

The soldiers crammed their family with hundreds of other Ukrainians onto rickety buses, deprived them of food, water, and access to toilets, and trafficked them from their home, through a “filtration camp,” and across the border into Russia over the course of several days in March.

But their ordeal didn’t end there; while Daria was able to escape Russia within days with the help of local connections, Oksana and her two children were taken to a temporary housing facility deeper in Russia, where her captors said they should be “de-nazified,” a term stemming from President Vladimir Putin’s bogus justification for his invasion.

“They simply want to get rid of Ukraine and its people,” Oksana said.

A systematic campaign of forced displacement

Their ordeal is a microcosm of what is happening to more than one million Ukrainians in the Russian-controlled eastern regions.

The Kremlin’s soldiers are rounding up Ukrainians in areas they occupy and forcing them into camps, where they are separated from their families, stripped of their personal documents and sometimes their clothes, searched and interrogated by troops and security service agents, and pressured to incriminate them loved ones and smear the Ukrainian military. Often, they are trafficked across the border to guarded compounds in Russia hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from their homes, according to Ukrainian victims, US and Ukrainian officials, and documents obtained by POLITICO.

In many if not most cases, these people do not want to be taken to Russia but are threatened with violence by armed troops, according to Ukrainian authorities. Besides Daria and Oksana, POLITICO spoke with three people who were forcibly deported and processed through so-called filtration camps in Russia-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine before being taken across the border and placed in various buildings, including dormitories and penal colonies, where their freedoms are restricted. They confirmed details about the filtration camps but asked not to be quoted for this story because they have family still residing in Mariupol and other areas under Russian control and fear for their safety.

More than 1,185,000 Ukrainians, including 206,000 children — 2,161 of which are orphans — have been taken from eastern and southern Ukraine to Russia since the start of Putin’s invasion on Feb. 24, according to Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman. Those figures closely aligned with Russia’s own figures, although Moscow has claimed the Ukrainians asked to be evacuated for their own safety. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Russian Embassy in Washington wrote on Telegram that the camps are “checkpoints for civilians leaving the zone of active hostilities.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that since late February about 1 million people, including many from areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have been under Moscow’s control since 2014, have been moved to Russia. Speaking to POLITICO in an interview at her Kyiv office last week, Denisova called what Russia is doing “forced deportation” and a “war crime.”

Documents provided by Denisova to POLITICO that she said were obtained by Ukraine’s intelligence services purport to show that Russia had plans in place for filtration camps and resettlement areas weeks before the invasion.

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