Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers are forcibly taking people from Mariupol to Russia after interrogating them in so-called filtration camps, according to accounts shared by Ukrainian women.
“People need to know the truth, that Ukrainians are being moved to Russia, the country that is occupying us,” a woman hiding in a Mariupol suburb with her family since the beginning of March told The Guardian.
The reports are consistent with claims by the Mariupol City Council that Russians have kidnapped 20,000 Mariupol residents, according to an English translation of a March 29 post on the council’s Telegram channel.
Russian soldiers have transported Ukrainians, including patients and staff from at least two Mariupol maternity hospitals, through Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine, NPR reported.
The woman told The Guardian she was among a group of roughly 200 to 300 people who were taken to Novoazovsk, Ukraine, via bus.
That’s when they recognized they had arrived at a “filtration camp,” a series of military tents run by the Russian military where those arriving faced interrogation and confiscation of personal items before they were eventually moved to Russia.
The woman said she had her photo and fingerprints taken, and was questioned about potential ties to the Ukrainian military and her opinion on the war before being sent to the Russian town of Rostov. Others have reported they had to hand in their phones and passwords, which officers then used to access their phone contacts and register them into a database, according to The Washington Post.
The woman left the group after telling the soldiers she had family in the area and has since made her way to the E.U.
“Such reports are lies,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
Moscow said in March it rescued 420,000 people “from dangerous regions of Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” and evacuated them to Russia.
U.S. intelligence warned before the invasion that Russia may resort to its past practices of unlawful detentions.
“These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, unjust detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions,” Bathsheba Crocker, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in a letter to the U.N.
The term “filtration camps” originated in the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Soviet citizens that had been living outside the country who then sought to return — even those forcibly taken to Germany as war criminals — were deemed “suspect.” They had to be screened in camps and holding stations before they were readmitted into the Soviet Union or deported, according to U.K. history professor Nick Baron.
In February 2000, Human Rights Watch issued a report detailing excessive violence and rape committed by Russian forces inside a filtration camp in Chechnya, following a 1999 offensive against Chechen rebels during Putin’s first month in power. The aggression offset an earlier Russian setback that forced Russia to remove its forces from the region and sign a treaty that gave Chechnya, a majority Muslim republic, large autonomy in 1996, according to NPR.
Russia emerged triumphant this time, with Putin celebrating his victory in March 2000.
The ongoing Ukraine war has worried those who have followed Chechnya.
“There are some pretty disturbing parallels,” Thomas de Waal, a journalist who covered the area in the 1990s, told NPR. “The use of heavy artillery, the indiscriminate attacking of an urban center. They bring back some pretty terrible memories for those of us who covered the Chechnya war of the 1990s.”
The southern port city of Mariupol, where those taken to filtration camps originated, has borne the brunt of Russian cruelty and faces continued bombardments.
Over 4 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country since the war began.