But February 24, she realized, was different. Soon Russian jets were flying overhead. As the shelling intensified, Oksana – who, like the others in this story, asked that surnames not be used – worried about the safety of her children. Her ex-husband called and suggested they all meet at his parents’ apartment building, which was built after World War II and had solid walls and a basement. They grabbed a few personal items amid the explosions and ran.
But they did not feel safe there. When they learned that people were gathering in a fortified bomb shelter under the neighborhood’s Maison de la culture building, they decided to move.
Two days later, in the basement of the building, she reunited with other members of his family, including his 24-year-old niece Daria, as well as about 60 other people. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would spend the next three weeks in the freezing shelter, in the middle of winter, without setting a single foot outside.
Food and water were scarce, the women said. Daria said the family relied on her grandfather, who had been a military doctor during Soviet times, to bring them bread and whatever else he could muster. They huddled together to keep warm in the dark, using a flashlight to illuminate the shelter in case the power went out. Daria’s younger sister, Marina, sketched their experience in her diary, illustrating the grim and terrifying situation in gray pencil. Over the next few days, the walls of the Maison de la Culture were pounded by artillery shells. Daria feared the ceiling would collapse. “It became clear that this was not a safe place. They were actually targeting the building,” she said.
Daria, a freelance book editor, said the 20 days they spent huddled in a cold, dark bomb shelter “was a nightmare”.
But what followed was hell.
Daria and Oksana told POLITICO they emerged from the shelter to find Russian troops silhouetted by the first sun they had seen in weeks.
Soldiers crammed their families with hundreds of other Ukrainians into rickety buses, deprived them of food, water and access to toilets, and trafficked them from their homes, through a ‘filtration camp’ and across the border to Russia over several days in March.
But their ordeal did not stop there; while Daria was able to escape Russia within days with the help of local connections, Oksana and her two children were taken to temporary accommodation deeper in Russia, where her captors said they should be” de-nazified”, a term originating from President Vladimir Putin’s false justification for his invasion.
“They just want to get rid of Ukraine and its people,” Oksana said.
A systematic campaign of forced displacement
Their ordeal is a microcosm of what is happening to more than a million Ukrainians in the eastern regions under Russian control.
Kremlin soldiers round up Ukrainians in the areas they occupy and confine them to camps, where they are separated from their families, stripped of their personal documents and sometimes of their clothes, searched and interrogated by troops and security services, and pushed to incriminate their relatives and smear the Ukrainian army. According to Ukrainian victims, U.S. and Ukrainian officials, and documents obtained by POLITICO, they are often trafficked across the border to guarded compounds in Russia hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles from their home.
In many, if not most, cases these people do not want to be taken to Russia but are threatened with violence by armed troops, according to Ukrainian authorities. Besides Daria and Oksana, POLITICO spoke to three people who were forcibly deported and treated in so-called filter camps in Russian-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine before being taken from across the border and placed in various buildings, including dormitories and penal colonies, where their freedoms are restricted. They confirmed details of the filter camps but asked not to be named for this story because they have family still residing in Mariupol and other Russian-held areas and fear for their safety.
More than 1,185,000 Ukrainians, including 206,000 children – including 2,161 orphans – have been taken from eastern and southern Ukraine to Russia since Putin’s invasion began on February 24, according to Lyudmila Denisova , the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman. Those numbers closely match Russia’s numbers, although Moscow said the Ukrainians asked to be evacuated for their own safety. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Russian Embassy in Washington wrote on Telegram that the camps are “checkpoints for civilians leaving the area of active hostilities”.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that since late February around 1 million people, including many from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have been under Moscow’s control since 2014, have been transferred to Russia. Speaking to POLITICO in an interview at her Kyiv office last week, Denisova called what Russia is doing a “forced deportation” and a “war crime.”
Documents provided by Denisova to POLITICO which she says were obtained by Ukrainian intelligence claim to show that Russia had plans in place for filter camps and resettlement areas weeks before the invasion.