“4th Monday. I woke up and smiled as yesterday, grandma went for water and returned. Also, I have a birthday and two of my dogs died =( and grandma Halya =( and my favorite city Mariupol for all this time starting on 24th Thursday”
Nine-year-old Yehor made this entry in his diary on March 4. At that time, he was still living in Mariupol with his mother and older sister. Between entries Yehor drew buildings, people lying on the street, tanks, helicopters and armed soldiers.
“He came up with the idea of writing a diary himself,” says Yehor’s mother Olena. — When I saw the first entries, I cried, it was painful to read. This is not something children should see. It seems to me that at that moment it was important for him to speak out in this way.
Elena is 38 years old and has lived in Mariupol all her life. She worked in the customer service of a utility company, raised two children. Their home was not far from Azovstal.
On May 30, Olena was able to leave occupied Mariupol with her children and mother.
A shell hit Elena’s house on March 18. The windows were blown out, the roof collapsed. At that time, in addition to Elena and her children, her parents and 91-year-old grandmother were at home. They hid in the bathroom because the basement of the house was flooded with underground water. Elena was wounded in the arm, another shrapnel went through the thigh. The eldest daughter’s forehead was scratched and a nail was torn off, Yehor was wounded in the back. The wound was so deep that Elena thought she could see his lungs through it. Elena’s mother was wounded in the back and head. The father received the most injuries. There were no pharmacies, and there was no medical assistance either. The maximum that the military could help with was to make a bandage and leave a small supply of medicines. Neighbors brought some medicine, and that’s how Olena and her children learned to cope on their own.
The children’s wounds gradually healed. But her father’s wounds were more severe. The man died in eight days. Olena buried her father in her garden, because there was no other way.
Until May 17, when the Ukrainian defenders finally left the territory of Azovstal, Elena heard heavy Russian bombs falling on the plant. Sometimes they fell on neighboring areas. The streets were littered with shrapnel, remnants of shells, and pipes from mortars. At some point, residents simply stopped noticing them. And fires were burning all around – they were kindled by local residents to cook food, because there was no electricity or gas. According to approximate estimates of the local authorities, there were about 100-130 thousand residents in the city at that time.
“While I was still in the city, they started giving water,” Olena recalls. – “It poured all over the streets. Then, in the apartment buildings, which are less damaged, electricity was repaired. There were queues everywhere, I had never seen them even in my childhood. Everything was expensive. Wi-Fi appeared near the store. I saw a bunch of people, I thought there was a line for products, but these people were picking up the Internet. Giant trucks with screens were brought to the market, where they told that Ukraine did not need “Azov” and “Azovstal”. Some looked, some spat, some walked by.”
Olena recalls that after a shell flew into her house, she and her children lived in the basement of a nearby apartment building. A few days later, Kadyrov soldiers came to them, ordered everyone to leave, and set up a firing position there. Elena returned home. And later, already after the occupation of the city, “DPR” militants began to be stationed in the building.
“They walked down the street and asked who was left, why I didn’t go to Donetsk with the wounded children,” says Olena. — “They insisted that if I wanted, they could take me out. I said that I cannot leave my mother, grandmother, or relatives. They also wrote some lists, asked who had children, and took people with children away. At that time, I had already learned to cope with children’s injuries, and I had a non-critical housing situation. But if it was critical, I would go anywhere.”
Closer to the summer, announcements appeared that a school was opening in the district. One of six. The school, where Olena’s children used to go, was bombed – there are no classrooms, a hole all the way to the first floor. About 50 parents came to the meeting. Children were registered formally, based on the words of their parents, because many of their documents were burned. They did not say anything about what education would be like. Neither Olena nor her children went to that school anymore.
Elena was also called to return to work. They did not say anything about money, only on June 1, they gathered people. She refused because she planned to leave.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to leave earlier, and I wasn’t mentally ready either,” says Olena. — “But I understood that I have two children, they have no future in the occupation. And we would not survive the winter in a damaged house. At first, we collected eleven bags, then realized that we would not be able to carry them all. Autumn and winter things were taken out. I took the icon that I embroidered with beads myself. The seven-armed Mother of God. A small figurine that I once brought back from a trip. Among the children’s books, Yehor hid the diary. So 38 years of my life in Mariupol fit into three bags.”
To leave occupied Mariupol, you must first find someone who has transport. Olena did not want to go by bus to Russia as a matter of principle. At first, the taxi drivers agreed to drop the family off in Berdyansk, and then either refused, changed their plans, or said that the car broke down. In the end, one taxi driver agreed to take Elena with her children and mother. Four and a half thousand hryvnias or the equivalent in rubles for the trip. But they were not released at the checkpoint in Mangush without passing through filtration.
“Mom calls it castration,” Ehor prompts, and mom smiles lightly.
“It seems that all people who live in Mariupol have to undergo filtration,” Olena continues. — “But why it is held in town, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just building a base of people. I got filtered just to leave.”
As Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol said, there are filtration points for those who want to leave the city in Manhush, Nikolskyi, Bezimennyi, Starobeshevo, and in the cities of Dokuchaevsk and Donetsk. There is no single verification system. Also, there are no guarantees of filtration.
Olena and her family stood in line for filtration in Manhush. Got the seven thousandth number in the queue. At that time, two thousand numbers were selected for filtration. Probably, Olena would have to wait about a month for the screening, but since she and the children were injured, they were allowed to be interrogated without a queue. Elena’s mother received a pass without questioning, only upon a written application, as she is elderly.
The building where the filtration takes place is guarded by Russian security forces. Elena and the children were interrogated by women. The interrogation takes place in one room, where five people are taken. A total of forty people can come in during the day.
First, you had to fill out a questionnaire with questions like, did you help the Armed Forces, do you have weapons, do you have a criminal record, do you have relatives in the territory of the “DPR”, do you have relatives in Ukraine, where are you going to live, etc. Then the workers collected fingerprints and palm prints and entered them into the database.
They asked if there is a tattoo. I say that there is one, in memory of the war, – says Olena, pointing to the still unhealed shrapnel wound on her hand. – The atmosphere in the room was oppressive. They growl: “Give me the documents!” I give the documents. Next: “What did you give me all at once? What do you think, I will process everything at once? What are you digging here?” They keep people in suspense so that they break down. My daughter was asked where she was registered, where she studied, and where the scar on her head came from. She is an introverted girl, she sat and was silent. I was asked if I had intimidated her so that she would not say anything. They said that if you remain silent, you will not pass the filter. I replied that the child was scared and asked her to answer the questions. In the end, we were given papers with stamps and the inscription “fingerprinted”. After Berdyanska, no one asked us about them.
Men in the filtration stations are interrogated and examined more strictly. When phones are checked, they ask how the contacts are signed, who is shown in the photo, they ask provocative questions. Since there was no communication and Internet in Mariupol for a long time, not everyone has time to clean messengers before filtration. And even if they have time, during the interrogation, the Russian special services connect the phone to their computers and can restore the deleted information.
Little is known about what happens to people who have not been filtered. For example, in June, the BBC published a story about the men who were interrogated in Nameless. After they did not pass the filtering, they were sent for questioning to representatives of the FSB. Relatives were not allowed to visit them, they were punched in the face, kicked on the body, asked about connections with the Ukrainian authorities. The next morning, one of the men, together with two other women, was transferred to the filtration colony in Starobeshevo. There were 24 people in the cell. The man was released after four days and additional interrogation, so he was able to get to the controlled territory. Other men in the BBC report stated that they and their relatives were tortured, including by electric shock, in Bezimenny. In total, according to the Ukrainian authorities, more than 30,000 Mariupol residents can be held in filtration prisons and colonies.
Ukrainians go through similar procedures in the occupied territories of Kherson, Luhansk, or Kharkiv regions, where it’s supposed to be no filtration.
— In the occupied territories, conditions are created when people simply cannot avoid filtration, — says Stas Miroshnychenko, journalist of the Media Initiative for Human Rights. — A filtration camp is not necessarily a tent city. It can be a military commandant’s office of the occupying power, and a person is obliged to go through this commandant’s office. If at the beginning of the war, for example, in the Kherson region, the occupiers interrogated mainly activists, veterans, people related to the military, military personnel, and so on, now it is already clear that the resistance to the occupation is massive. Therefore, the occupying power must pass all people through a filter to identify disloyal ones.
Recently, the occupation authorities have been asking Ukrainians to sign a statement that they “suffered from the actions of the Ukrainian army” during the filtration process. These statements can be used by the Russians for propaganda, for example, during show trials of captured military personnel. Human rights defenders emphasize that such documents have no legal weight in Ukraine, as they are another tool of pressure on the residents of the occupied territories.
At the end of March, the Ukrainian authorities began to receive the first reports of Ukrainians forcibly deported to Russia. People sought either to leave for another country or to return to Ukraine. At first, it was not clear how the Ukrainians ended up in Russia at all, since no one would evacuate them there. And later, the Ukrainian authorities began to talk about the first cases of deportation.
Marina* was taken from Mariupol to Russia in March. There was no communication in the city, and information about the evacuation came from hearsay. A neighbor told Marina that evacuation buses were coming from one of the streets, and she and her children decided to try to leave. When Marina and her children boarded the bus, she realized that they were not going to the territory controlled by Ukraine.
“First we were brought to Nikolsk,” Marina told LB.ua at the beginning of April. – We sat in buses all the time. We were not told that we were going to Russia. Then they checked our documents, looked for tattoos, and asked about our attitude towards the Ukrainian authorities. We transferred to other buses and went from there to Taganrog. There were many people in civilian clothes, maybe volunteers, asking if we needed a place to stay. Some people were taken to settle somewhere. We said that we have relatives in Russia, and we were given train tickets. The train did not go according to schedule and almost without stops. We did not go to the final station. We got off at some stop, there at the station we bought tickets to St. Petersburg, where we had acquaintances. After that, no one checked us.
Ex-ombudsman of Ukraine Lyudmila Denisova said in an interview with LB.ua that the deportation of Ukrainians began on February 18. In fact, then “evacuation buses” left the occupied territories for Rostov. Residents of Donetsk, who volunteered for evacuation, told LB.ua that dispatchers on the hotline and officials of the occupation administrations, who recorded everyone who got on the buses, promised that they would be housed in sanatoriums in the Rostov region.
In the spring, Ukrainians who were deported from the occupied territories of the Donetsk region were resettled in camps for the duration of the screening before being taken to Russia. Currently, there are people who have been in such camps for several months, waiting for their turn to leave.
In the case of the Donetsk region, people are first taken to the checkpoint and from there to the border. If it is mass deportation by buses, then in Taganrog they are settled for a day or two in temporary accommodation points. It can be anything – a sanatorium, a hostel, a camp, a gym, a train station. People are often given Russian SIM cards and taken to Rostov, where they board trains going to other regions of Russia. These trains are called “evacuation” trains, but they are actually deportation trains. They don’t run on a schedule, and people don’t have a choice of where to go.
At the checkpoint, before leaving, people are forced to go through all the same procedures as at the filtration. Interrogations are conducted by representatives of the FSB or Russian border guards who work in the structure of the FSB. People can be interrogated, searched, and detained for hours.
42-year-old Sofia* was leaving occupied Melitopol with two children with disabilities. At first, she did not think that she would have to flee, but later rumors began to circulate in the city that the young men would be forcibly mobilized into the Russian army. Sofia’s eldest son is 16 years old, he is a minor, but he looks older. The woman was afraid that Russian soldiers could take him for mobilization right from the street, so she decided to run away.
They left in April through Crimea, because the family was afraid that they might come under fire because Russian troops are constantly shelling the evacuation routes to controlled territories. 16 Russian checkpoints were passed along the way. At the administrative border with Crimea, the occupiers searched things, checked phones and laptops, and offered to hand over Ukrainian passports. Sofia answered that now she wants to get to her relatives, and then she will make a decision.
“In Dzhankoya, we immediately got on the train to Moscow,” says Sofia. — As soon as they arrived, two policemen and two Facebook officers in civilian clothes approached the car. They had lists of arrivals from Ukraine — they were looking for men and boys of draft age. They scanned our suitcase, turned out our pockets and let us go. We did not stay in Russia, because we knew that the hotel administration informs the special services when Ukrainians move in. Therefore, they immediately left the train for the bus station.
On March 12, the Russian authorities published a resolution on the distribution of Ukrainians in Russia. Voronezh Oblast — seven thousand people, Murmansk Oblast — 2,452 people, Krasnodar Krai — 5,330 people, the Republic of Buryatia — 1,402 people, Moscow — zero, and so on.
Ukrainians who find themselves in Russia have two options: try to leave for neighboring Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Finland, etc., or stay and become hostages of the Kremlin. At the same time, the choice is not always there, because after arriving in Russia, people are settled in temporary detention centers if they have nowhere else to go. There are places where you can move freely. And there are points where outsiders are not allowed at all, and often people do not even know that they have the opportunity to leave.
— The Russian side announces the figures of two million Ukrainians who left for Russia. But it should be understood that this is the number of border crossings that the Ukrainian side does not control, and the Russian side continues to control, – says the advocacy manager of the ZMINA human rights center Olena Lunyova. — But they never record how many people left the territory of Russia, returned to the occupied territories, or went abroad. Therefore, it is not worth focusing on these numbers. At the same time, temporary accommodation points were deployed on the territory of Russia. They exist in almost all regions of Russia and Crimea. At the end of April, Russia last publicly said how many people live in these points — a total of 33,000. This does not compare to the millions who supposedly came.
People were and continue to be deported from the Donetsk region, Luhansk region, and Kharkiv region. Also earlier, facts of deportation to Russia and Belarus were recorded in the Chernihiv region and Kyiv region. Ukrainian diplomats are still working on the territory of Belarus, helping Ukrainians to return home.
Olena Lunyova notes that the number of people who left for Russia is not the same as the number of deportees. Since deportation, as a crime, must be documented through open criminal proceedings and existing coercion and other signs. People were forced to go to the territory of Russia because Russia created such conditions. This is a compulsion to move. But the majority of people were then able to leave Russia (except for those who have nowhere to go, no documents or money). This category includes, for example, children.
In an interview with LB.ua, the secretary of the working group of the President’s Office on the life and safety of children in wartime and postwar times, Daria Gerasymchuk, said that the National Information Bureau recorded 5,090 reports of child deportation. Human rights activist Olena Lunyova says that children from boarding schools in the occupied territories were taken to Russia on February 18. It is easier for deported children without parents to obtain Russian citizenship or start the adoption process on the territory of Russia.
Patients of psycho-neurological boarding schools were also taken out of the territory of previously occupied “DPR” and “LPR”. At the same time, there are no confirmed facts that adults with psycho-neurological boarding schools were deported from the territories that were occupied after February 24.
Lunyova adds that the processes of closing temporary accommodation centers have now begun in all territories of Russia.
— For example, in Khabarovsk Krai, people living in the TAC [temporary accommodation center] received a message that they had to leave because the TAC was closing. What is offered to people? It is suggested to move closer to the border with Ukraine or look for other housing. Plus, people began to return to the occupied territory in Volnovakha, Mariupol, etc. After all, Russian propaganda lies that the occupied cities are being rebuilt at an almost Stakhanov pace. That is, people do not understand the state of everything and return. In this way, Russia’s attitude towards Ukrainian citizens is clearly visible, because Ukrainians are not needed in Russia at all. Such an “evacuation” was necessary for Russia for a certain time, to show on TV that “people are fleeing.”
The way to freedom
People without documents who were forcibly deported often do not even have money to leave, as Ukrainian cards do not work on the territory of Russia. Human rights defenders and volunteers strongly advise not to sign any documents or applications for refugee status, not to give the remaining documents to anyone, and not to enter into any discussions with anyone. Instead, get in touch with someone who can help with money and leave whenever possible.
The situation is also different at the Russian checkpoints on the border with Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland. At some Russian checkpoints, Ukrainians are released quickly after document verification. But more often than not, people are forced to repeatedly go through interrogations, searches, and pressure, as well as to stand in line for hours. Men of draft age are checked more carefully. Sometimes a person can be detained for no reason and the family is not told where they are. If a person is detained for several days and released, then it is possible to cross the border. But there are cases when people disappear without a trace. Next, lawyers in Russian pre-trial detention centers try to find them.
For most people leaving the occupied territories, Russia is a transit country. They do not stay there but go further. At the same time, people who were forcibly deported without documents and money often do not see anyone else except Russians in temporary accommodation centers, because no one else is allowed there. Therefore, for them, Russia is a trap.
Sofia from Melitopol was able to leave Moscow for Lithuania. Now they are in Denmark. Sons graduated from Ukrainian school remotely. Sofia is now preparing documents to work in Denmark. Sofia’s parents remained in the occupied Melitopol.
After the deportation, Marina from Mariupol also left St. Petersburg for Lithuania. She has already found a job and is setting up a new life in a new country.
Olena from Mariupol with her son, daughter, and mother came under fire while traveling from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia. It happened not far from the checkpoint in Vasylivka, where the Russian military regularly fires at evacuation vehicles. Together with other evacuated residents of Mariupol, they lived in Zaporizhzhia for a week, and then took a train to Kyiv. Their house in Mariupol is now inhabited by their neighbors who lost their home.
— I didn’t think about Europe. And who knows that there won’t be Russian missiles there either? – says Olena. — Kyiv is not my native home, but there are relatives, friends, and relatives here. Three years ago, I came to Kyiv on a business trip and felt at home here. Now that I have arrived, I like the city, especially in the evening, but I constantly compare it with Mariupol. I walk down the street, smell the roses and think about the roses I had. I am waiting for Mariupol to become Ukrainian in order to return there. This is the state of everyone who has left, with whom I communicate. We would return there to rake with our hands all that was left of him. Just go home.