Maria Vdovychenko says she’ll never forget the conversation she overheard before being screened by Russian soldiers as she and her family were fleeing the siege of Mariupol.
“What did you do with people who didn’t pass the filtration?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Shot 10 and stopped counting — not interested,” came the reply.
Traveling with her mother and younger sister, the 17-year-old Vdovychenko and her father were two of an estimated 30,000 Ukrainians so far to undergo “filtration,” Moscow’s alleged campaign to catch and punish perceived enemies or others deemed somehow unreliable from among the war’s refugees.
Accusations have followed that Ukrainians ensnared in the occupation forces’ vetting are being killed or “disappeared,” or forcibly deported to Siberia and other Russian destinations, in the latest indication of possible war crimes by Russia in the 9-week-old offensive.
Moscow has denied committing atrocities and routinely blames Ukrainian forces for civilian deaths and other abuses in a war that Russian censorship prohibits from being described as a “war” at all.
‘My Legs Started To Tremble’
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of transporting hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities, taking their documents, and putting them in so-called “filtration” camps, before moving them to Russia.
Vdovychenko told Current Time that her family’s experience was not of any kind of filtration “settlement” but a bottleneck to screen families like hers.
Her family had waited two days and nights in their car to leave Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Sea of Azov, which local officials now say has been essentially “razed” by weeks of bombardment and its remaining occupants deprived of electricity, gas, and water.
“There was a column of hundreds of cars,” Vdovychenko said. “You can’t even use a toilet. Your legs are swollen. Your whole body hurts.”
Her mother and her 12-year-old sister were both spared the filtration, even though the Russians had made it known that anyone 14 or over would be screened.
She said she had steeled herself for a “very difficult” ordeal but was terrified to find herself alone in a room with five armed men, while her father was undergoing his own interrogation, which included a beating.
She was fingerprinted, her documents scanned, and her smartphone scoured for signs of disloyalty to the forces currently occupying wide swaths of her homeland.
Then, when it seemed to be nearly over, one of the men appeared to allude to rape, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups say has become a feature of Europe’s biggest military invasion since World War II.
“My legs started to tremble when a soldier who was lying on a mattress said: ‘Don’t you like her? There will be more women later. We’ll find something,'” Vdovychenko said. “They didn’t like me, and they just kicked me out.”
She said she wasn’t allowed to wait with her father, who was bullied and beaten and at one point asked by an interrogator: “How about we cut off your ear?”
He didn’t know how the interview ended, Vdovychenko said, since he said he was struck in the head and only regained consciousness on the pavement outside.
More than two dozen checkpoints later, with no more “filtration” along the way, she and her family eventually reached territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
“Even the sky was different there. It was clean. There was none of that dust that’s kicked up and hangs in the air from the explosions. We started to hope that we can settle our lives. We deserve it, after all those horrors. We really wanted to live.”
Accusations Of ‘Disappeared’
Vdovychenko’s story and other accounts collected by RFE/RL highlight the emerging pattern of a crude and brutal process by Russian and separatist forces to vet fleeing Ukrainians for people who might have worked as civil servants, soldiers, police, or security officers.
Other Ukrainians displaced by the war have talked of weeks awaiting screening at “pre-filtration” sites, perilous escapes on foot to avoid “filtration,” and Russian roundups within Mariupol to interrogate civil servants and other local workers.
Many observers are increasingly concerned at reports that some of the detainees have been deported to Siberia or Russia’s Far East, or simply “disappeared” after being tortured and handed over to Moscow’s separatist allies in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has acknowledged relocating more than 1 million Ukrainians since President Vladimir Putin launched the all-out invasion on February 24 — deportations that critics suggest violate the laws of war.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of transporting hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities, taking their documents, and putting them in the “filtration” camps, before moving them to Russia.
Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, says at least four “filtration” camps are operating near Mariupol.
The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Carpenter, told the OSCE’s Permanent Council on April 28 of “harrowing” accounts from the camps.
He said local leaders, activists, journalists, and religious leaders were being abducted, tortured, and sometimes killed by Russian forces.
Carpenter cited “credible reporting” indicating that Russian soldiers are detaining and “brutally interrogating” them for suspected links to Ukraine’s government or independent media. Some of the detainees are then being sent to separatist-held territory in Donetsk and “reportedly disappeared or murdered.”
He predicted a “wave of abuses” against perceived opponents ahead of “sham” referendums to assert claims to areas under Russian control.
One Ukrainian who lost his home and business in a town near Mariupol before fleeing with his wife and two sons one month into the siege told RFE/RL’s Donbas.Realities about his screening at the hands of Russian forces encircling the city.
The man, who asked RFE/RL not to identify him by name, eventually made his way to Russia, then to Latvia, Poland, and finally to the Czech Republic.
He was required to undergo “filtration” in the village of Bezimenne in order to travel across territory held by the Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region.
His wife and his elderly mother were similarly screened.
After waiting for two days, a process he said was accelerated in a special line for cars with children, the Russians confiscated his smartphone and downloaded information from it, and asked him questions about his views on a number of topics.
“How do you feel about [those in] power? Where have you been? What do you know?” he said. “Like they used to do in the KGB.”