At least a million Ukrainian civilians have fled the fighting to Russia, according to Russian Defense Ministry figures that the Ukrainian government also accepts as valid. In many cases, especially in the devastated city of Mariupol, residents were effectively forced into Russia with no option to seek refuge on friendlier soil. In other cases, especially in the breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine, the trip to Russia was voluntary.
Nearly all of them have had to go through “filtration camps,” a dangerous process in which Ukrainians are strip-searched and interrogated. People suspected of sympathizing with the Ukrainian military are being detained and tortured, according to refugees, representatives of voluntary organizations and Ukrainian and US officials.
“People who speak openly about pro-Ukrainian positions are disappearing,” said Lyudmila Denisova, a human rights ombudsman in the Ukrainian parliament.
Not all stories have ended badly. In some cases, Ukrainians who wanted to pass through Russia and go to another country were able to do so, even if they were staunchly pro-kyiv. Some spoke appreciatively of the help from local Russian humanitarian groups.
But many Ukrainians have been moved to a constellation of temporary refugee settlements across Russia’s vast territory, leaving them trapped inside the country that had hatefully attacked them and razed their homes.
In the camps, the interrogation often continues, the refugees said.
“’Who are you for?’ they asked. ‘For Russia or for Ukraine?’” said Bohdan, a 26-year-old construction worker from Mariupol, who fled the city with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in mid-March as buildings in his neighborhood began to collapse due to heavy fighting. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be published because he fears for his safety.
He fled into Russian-controlled territory, the only place he could get to at the time. Finally, he made his way to a refugee center in Yalta, Crimea, on the site of an abandoned Soviet spa that he said had not been renovated since. He was repeatedly questioned about his loyalties.
“I told him, ‘You guys are interesting people. There was a war in my homeland, Russian soldiers attacked and my house was destroyed. And you want me to shout pro-Russian proclamations?’” she recalled telling them.
Russian officials also questioned him about the location of Ukrainian military positions inside Mariupol, he said.
He and his family left Russia in mid-April with the help of some foreign volunteer organizations, he said, and are now in Stockholm. The rest of his group of refugees were taken to a dilapidated resort somewhere in a remote area of Russia, more than 600 miles inside the border, he said.
Repeated rounds of questioning
Alexander Shevchuk, 19, who studied information technology at a local university, lived with his family on the eastern bank of the Kalmius River that bisects Mariupol, near the headquarters of the pro-Kyiv Azov regiment that has been targeted by Russian firepower. .
From the ninth floor of a nearby apartment building, he was able to witness the methodical destruction of the city by Russian artillery. “For the first time, I understood what the apocalypse was like,” she said. When he was caught in crossfire inside a closed supermarket while looking for food, a fragment of an artillery shell lodged in his back, he said. Many others around him were killed.
When soldiers from the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic captured the area where Shevchuk’s family was hiding in late March, there was no choice but to try to reach Russia. Even before reaching the border, he said, he endured repeated rounds of interrogation by separatist soldiers, Russian border guards and agents of Russia’s FSB, the internal security agency; everyone tried to establish if he had participated in the fight. He was repeatedly strip-searched and searched for pro-Ukrainian tattoos and calluses and bruises that may be signs of tampering with weapons.
Shevchuk said he was questioned about his long hair and goatee, which soldiers and border agents believed to be a sign of Ukrainian nationalism. The men who had military certificates suggesting they had served actively in the Ukrainian army were detained, he said. An acquaintance of his was taken to another building, then beaten, tortured and robbed before being released again.
“I was very scared,” Shevchuk said. “I was afraid they would say I was from Azov,” the pro-Kyiv battalion, he said.
Shevchuk and his family eventually spent about a week in a “filtration camp” on the Ukrainian side of the border, awaiting a final round of interrogation. The refugees received questionnaires asking their attitudes about the Ukrainian military, the Ukrainian government, and various elements of Ukrainian life. Shevchuk and the others wrote “negative” since they thought that was the correct answer. “We didn’t want any trouble,” he said.
The interrogators also searched phones and tablets, looking at apps and photos to try to find any traces of military combat, and removed the SIM cards from some of them because, they said, they could be used to attack by the Ukrainian military.
If any of the Ukrainians slipped up and referred to what happened as “war,” the interrogators would immediately become aggressive, Shevchuk said. “Why do you think this is a war? War against whom? he said they asked him. “You know you shouldn’t say this word.”
Many refugees are wary of expressing their views openly on Russian soil, unsure of the allegiance of other displaced Ukrainians around them and the Russians who are helping them.
“They will never say anything against Russia, because they don’t trust us,” said Laila Rogozina, head of the reception office for the Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian voluntary organization that helps refugees and has been harassed by the Kremlin.
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The treatment of refugees within Russia appears to vary widely. Much depends on luck. Some border guards prevent Ukrainians without proper documents from leaving Russia. Others are more lax, according to Ukrainians who have made the move.
“It’s like roulette. They can let you out or send you back” at the border, said Kirill Zhivoy, coordinator of Volunteers in Tbilisi, a group in the Georgian capital that is helping Ukrainians who manage to cross the border from Russia.
Some refugees are able to find decent housing on a short-term basis. Others only have access to guarded camps where refugees cannot come and go as they please.
Western backers of Ukraine have expressed alarm.
“If women, children, the elderly and others are being forcibly displaced,” Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters last week, “that It would be a war crime and it would just be terrible as a completely uncivilized effort.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has called reports of forced displacement “lies”.
“We are talking about checkpoints for civilians leaving the zone of active hostilities,” the Russian embassy in Washington wrote in a Telegram post. “In order to prevent sabotage operations by the Ukrainian national battalions, the soldiers of the Russian armed forces thoroughly inspect vehicles heading to safe regions. We will stop all bandits and fascists. The Russian army does not create any obstacles for the civilian population, but it helps them stay alive and provides them with food and medicine.”
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Many Ukrainians arrive in Russia with little more than the clothes on their backs, leaving them with little choice. Some lack money for bus tickets or understand the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. Others are unfamiliar with Russia’s vast geography and do not seem to understand that promises of additional support and temporary accommodation in Russia’s eastern regions can drive them thousands of miles from Ukraine.
“Some people from Mariupol said they had already decided to go to the Khabarovsk region” on Russia’s eastern Pacific coast, a six-day train journey from Moscow, said Danil Makhnitsky, head of a Moscow-based volunteer organization. who is helping refugees with supplies and practical support. Some of the refugees don’t understand where they are going when they sign up, said Makhnitsky, whose group goes by the name “Society. Future.”
If Ukrainians want help from the Russian government, often a necessity, as Ukrainian cash cannot be exchanged for Russian rubles, they often need to hand over their passports to get it. Both temporary housing and asylum require the delivery of documents to the authorities. It can be difficult to get them back.
“They are taking Ukrainians hostage,” said Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights defender.
Even Ukrainians who say Russia was their preferred destination say they worry about the challenges of being a refugee there.
“The migration service said that if I want to get my passport back, I will have to write an official letter saying that I reject this temporary residence asylum certificate,” said Marina Tsymbalova, 33, a refugee from Mariupol who is in Moscow with two of her her daughters and applied for a one-year temporary asylum status in Russia that required her to surrender her Ukrainian documents.
“I want to go back at some point,” he said. “My mom is there, and my oldest daughter. I care about them.
Once Shevchuk and his family reached the Russian side of the border, they spent about a week in temporary refugee housing before buying bus tickets to neighboring Georgia. He said that they had been able to move freely and that they wanted to leave as quickly as possible. It was oppressive to stay in a country where most people support the war and billboards everywhere are plastered with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the invasion. Inside Russia, it was not possible to express his views openly, he said.
“We had a peaceful life. They took it away from me and left me with nothing,” she said. “Suddenly they tell you that you are saving yourself. Saved from what? I have never seen fascists or Nazis.”
Serhiy Morgunov in kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this story.