Vera and Nicole thought they had experienced the worst of the war when Russia laid siege to their city, Mariupol, for weeks. The sisters helped neighbors bury their neighbors, melted snow for drinking water, and survived a bombing that tore a hole in their home’s ceiling.
But in mid-March, they knew it was time to leave. They heard that the Russian invaders were flooding the southern port city and taking Ukrainians by bus to Russia or to Russian-controlled territory.
The sisters took Vera’s 4-year-old son, Kirill, from Mariupol on foot and embarked on a harrowing journey. They said they were crossing a corpse-strewn road; met a Russian sniper near a church who beckoned them; and survived an artillery fire in a flower field. After two days, the trio stumbled onto a highway, where they were met by a Russian soldier who directed them to a packed bus.
“He told us he had freed us and asked why our faces had gone dark,” Nicole said. “The way forward may have been a prison, but it was our only option.”
The bus took them to a school in the nearby town of Nikolske, which they say had been converted into a Russian-run registration center where Ukrainians filled out forms with their personal information. That was their first contact with what Ukrainian and US officials and human rights groups have called “filtration” centers, which they say are part of a system of forced expulsions of Ukrainians to Russia.
According to Frederick W. Kagan, senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, forced population movements and so-called “filtration” are tactics used by Russia during the Chechen wars of the 1990s. He said the strategy was to scare the population into submission, control witnesses to atrocities and segregate anyone perceived as resisting a Russian takeover.
The story of Vera and Nicole, who asked not to use their last names for fear of Russian reprisals, first came to light when they contacted a British humanitarian organization, United with Ukraine, which has been providing aid to Mariupol since March. The group arranged contact with bohobarmadrid.
The sisters, who say they are telling their story to show the world what is happening in the Russian-controlled area, have also spoken to other news media. They shared videos and a diary with The Times about their life in Mariupol and part of their escape from the city, which has now fallen almost entirely under Russian control.
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the group had documented two witness statements about the transport to filter centers and said Russia’s actions “showed all the hallmarks of a forced transfer.” She added that the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Russia is a party, prohibits the forced transfer of civilians from occupied territories, which would make such forced transfers a war crime.
“We cannot deny that there are people who have made an informed choice to go to Russia,” said Ms Denber. But, she said, other Ukrainians “are leaving because they have no choice but to go to the occupying power or die.”
The roads outside the Russian-occupied territory are also notoriously dangerous in places.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, recently told the Security Council that there were filtration centers in three Russian-controlled cities – Nikolske, Manhush and Yalta. All three, like Mariupol, are part of the Donetsk region, which borders Russia.
Vera and Nicole said they spent a short time in filtration centers in two of those three cities during their escape from Mariupol.
The two centers that Vera and Nicole went through in Nikolske and Manhush were not heavily guarded and some were given the option to stay or go, they said. But they said it wasn’t much of a choice: the Russians offered safe passage in only one direction, and it wasn’t into Ukrainian territory.
“For some, their homes were destroyed and they had nowhere to go,” Vera said. “Others were there to save their children. This was the only safe option they had left.”
Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights commissioner, has denied that Ukrainians were forcibly transferred to Russia. President Vladimir V. Putin says about a million Ukrainians have been brought to Russia, but he describes the move as evacuations.
The Russian authorities have described the invasion of Ukraine as a necessary mission to assist their ethnic relatives, who they believe are being discriminated against. They have portrayed the attempts to bring displaced persons from eastern Ukraine to Russia as a humanitarian operation to rescue them from the Ukrainian authorities.
Vera and Nicole’s ordeal began around mid-March, when Russian soldiers tightened their grip on Mariupol. Nicole said she heard a radio message saying that the International Committee of the Red Cross had begun evacuating people from the outskirts of the city.
“We were terrified,” said Nicole, 21. “But every day we waited, we knew it was getting harder to leave.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
They decided to take the risk, even if it meant leaving members of their families behind.
They bade farewell to their brother, who feared that if he left with them, he would be stopped by Russian soldiers who had allegedly searched military-age men to check evidence of service or training, such as tattoos or calluses on their tractors. fingers. Their mother, who had been separated from them since the invasion began, wouldn’t even know they had left.
In a series of video calls over the past few weeks, the sisters described an escape punctuated by beatings with death, including surviving artillery fire in a field.
“It was hell on earth,” said Vera, 27. “We were under attack and prayed that we would survive.”
The Russian soldier they encountered on the highway put them on a bus to Nikolske. They were taken to a school that had been converted into a filter place, they said. There was a long line of people filling out forms with personal information. Others slept on scraps of cardboard in the hallways.
They said they evaded the eviction through a mixture of ingenuity, luck and the kindness of strangers.
They left Nikolske after a few hours with the help of a local Ukrainian bus driver recruited by the Russians to take residents of Mariupol to filtering sites. He took them to another school that had been converted into a registration center in a nearby town, Manhush, where he suggested they might have better luck finding a ride to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya.
In kindergarten, the sisters said hundreds of people were waiting to be processed. They wrote down their names, dates of birth and where they came from and slept one night in one of the classrooms with dozens of others.
They heard of a group of volunteers collecting people in vans and taking them to Ukrainian areas. But Vera and Nicole hesitated: they had heard that such routes were sometimes targeted by Russian troops.
But when a Ukrainian man entered the school and offered them a free ride to Berdyansk, near the Russian border – one of the first cities Russia captured in the war – the sisters jumped at the opportunity. Although they would still be in Russian-controlled territory when they got there, they reasoned it was better to keep moving. They also had a relative in Berdyansk.
“I don’t know what would have happened if that man hadn’t come into our lives at that time,” Nicole said.
From Berdyansk, the sisters boarded an evacuation bus that was part of a humanitarian corridor to Zaporizhzhya in southeastern Ukraine. They knew they had reached the Ukrainian-occupied territory when they saw bright yellow city buses driving on the road.
“We stood on the street and started to cry,” said Vera. “I never thought the sight of a bus could make me so happy.”