RIGA, Latvia — The pro-Russian soldiers from the separatist-controlled area of Donbas arrived one day in mid-March.
Most of the men were ordered to stay behind, including those with disabilities, she said. Only those few men who had to take care of big families with small children could leave. The soldiers moved a group of about 90 people to a local school, which still had some of its walls intact, and the next morning put them all on buses bound for an unknown destination.
The young woman and her family were among several thousand residents of Mariupol who Ukrainian officials estimate have been forcibly relocated to Russia through separatist-controlled republics in eastern Ukraine.
She described being taken to what the Russian army called a “filtration camp” — a vast military tent with rows of men in uniforms calling up civilians one by one. Each “temporarily displaced person,” as the soldiers referred to them, was photographed from all sides and fingerprinted. Then the Ukrainians were told to turn over their phones and passwords to another officer, who entered their data into his computer, including their phone contacts. The next step was interrogation.
Satellite images and videos verified by The Washington Post show that in recent weeks, Russian-backed forces have begun building a camp in Bezymenne in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.
“At all stages of the journey, we were treated like captives or some criminals. I felt like a sack of potatoes tossed around,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns about a relative in Russia. “You have no will. How can you resist this? Even if you have a chance to escape, everything around is destroyed, and there is nowhere to hide.”
The Russian ultimatum
After the Russians started shelling her Mariupol suburb in the early days of the invasion, the young woman and her family took shelter in an underground bunker. When she emerged into the light for the first time after two weeks, she said, she could barely recognize the landscape of her town.
“There were just fallen trees, bricks and debris,” she said in an interview. “I watched a woman from my shelter die in front of me soon after because her heart couldn’t take it.”
Everyone in her group had been determined to stay put until the fighting ended or they were evacuated by Ukrainian forces toward the inland city of Zaporizhzhia or elsewhere in the country. But with Russian forces besieging the strategic port city of Mariupol, food and water were quickly running out, and the shelling was growing more intense, curtailing the possibility of humanitarian aid reaching the area.
Her family turned to her grandfather, a former medic, for provisions, she recalled. He cooked whatever produce he could find on an open fire and brought it to them in the shelter by bicycle.
As days passed, more and more homes were destroyed. Russian soldiers gradually occupied the remaining buildings, until the Russians finally reached the shelter and delivered what relief workers say has become a repeated ultimatum.
“We are receiving reports that Russian soldiers tell people who come out of the shelters that there is absolutely no evacuation from Mariupol at all, this is your last chance, and so on,” said a volunteer with the Helping to Leave Fund, which addresses the needs of people relocated to Russia from Ukraine.
“People agree because they have nothing, no electricity, no food, no heat,” said the volunteer, whom The Post is not naming out of concern for their safety. “So people suffering from hunger have to evacuate just somewhere.”
‘You have to be grateful’
As the young woman and others were bused away from her hometown, the drivers seemed to grow disoriented, repeatedly encountering destroyed roads and forced to change route, she said. Finally, after a long and convoluted trip, they arrived at the “filtration camp” near the town of Novoazovsk at the Russian border, which in peaceful times is less than an hour’s drive from Mariupol.
When the soldiers questioned her, she said, they were interested in whether she had any relatives in the Ukrainian military or family who had stayed behind in Ukraine. They also wanted to know what she thought about the Mariupol authorities.
“Then they add you to three different databases and take you further, but they don’t tell you where exactly they are leading you,” she recounted.
“At every stage of the way, they tell you that you have to be grateful that you are given a sandwich or evacuated somewhere else, that you have been liberated,” she said, adding, “Liberated from what?”
Ukrainian officials first accused Russia of forcibly displacing people from Mariupol more than a week ago.
“What the occupiers are doing today is familiar to the older generation, who saw the horrific events of World War II, when the Nazis forcibly captured people,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said earlier this month, according to the Mariupol City Council’s official Telegram channel.
“It is difficult to imagine that in the 21st century, people will be forcibly deported to another country. Not only are Russian troops destroying our peaceful Mariupol, they have gone even further and started deporting Mariupol residents,” Boychenko said.
Russia denies that anyone from Ukraine is being forcibly relocated. The Kremlin said Monday that “such reports are lies.” Russian government officials, as well as state television journalists, claim that Ukrainian “nationalistic battalions” are using the people of Mariupol “as human shields” and refusing to let them leave, and that Russian forces are rescuing them and taking them to safety outside Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry said last week that nearly 420,000 people have been evacuated to Russia “from dangerous regions of Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” since the beginning of the war. It is unclear how many have been forcibly transferred.
Officials from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which Russia recently recognized as independent, have been providing daily updates on people evacuated through Bezymenne. On Monday, its territorial defense headquarters said that 272 civilians, among them 66 children, have been evacuated from Mariupol.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Russian government newspaper, reported a week ago that 5,000 people had been processed at the camp in Bezymenne. The report said the people were subjected to thorough security checks to prevent “Ukrainian nationalists from infiltrating Russia disguised as refugees in order to escape and avoid punishment.”
Breaking away from the group
Soon after being processed along with several hundred people from other convoys that joined them, they were escorted across the border to Russia, where the woman was singled out and questioned again, this time by officers from the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service. She said the interrogation was much harsher, and that the officers pressed her about access to her social media accounts and whether she knew anything about the Ukrainian military’s movements.
The convoy was eventually taken to Taganrog, a Russian port city on the Sea of Azov. Only there were the people from Mariupol told that their final destination would be Vladimir, a town more than 600 miles to the east.
The woman, however, was able to break away from the group in Taganrog by convincing Russian soldiers that she had a friend nearby who was willing to house her family. She said she refused to sign any documents that would help give her family official status as refugees in Russia. Many of the others in her convoy remained behind, she said.
“In many cases, people do have the opportunity to go farther, but they can only use that opportunity if they have relatives in Russia, as Ukrainian bank cards don’t work and people have no money,” said a second volunteer from the Helping to Leave Fund. “If people were unlucky and they did not have rubles or dollars — few have — and they refuse the help of the Russian authorities, then they are in a very tough situation.”
Many of the people displaced from Mariupol were given only a few minutes to gather belongings and often forgot to take vital documents, making it difficult to leave Russia afterward. Some were too emotionally drained to plan escape routes and gave into Russian pressure to go into temporary housing, where they could be stranded.
Not long after heading off on her own with her family, the woman said, she saw a local television report about an elderly woman from her Mariupol shelter bound for Vladimir by train and being given an intravenous drip. The report said that Russian authorities were giving her medical care.
“But she needed an IV because they bombed her house, and she and everyone else is denied the right to talk about it directly,” she said.
The young woman said she was taken aback when she discovered that everyday Russians, like those she met as she traveled onward to Moscow, believed these kinds of lies about the war and echoed Kremlin propaganda.
“It’s terrible to find yourself in some kind of collective dream of people in Russia,” she said. “I had full confidence that most of the people in Russia did not support the war. But [once I got there], I felt that there is some kind of 100 percent support, and I felt sick walking around and seeing 'Z' stickers on cars,” she added, referring to the “Z” symbol that has become a domestic show of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The woman, together with her mother, brother and grandmother, eventually succeeded in leaving Russia by crossing into the European Union on foot.
But her grandfather, who had brought them food at the shelter, stayed in Mariupol, despite her efforts to rescue him.
“He thinks it is his land,” she said. “They don’t see themselves living anywhere else.”
Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, and Joyce Sohyun Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.