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A soldier stands in front of civilians

Witness: Forced Transfers and the Perilous Journeys that Brought Ukrainians to Russia

A member of Russian-affiliated troops stands in front of civilians, transported from Mariupol, Ukraine to the village of Bezimenne, in a part of Ukraine's Donetska region that is under Russian occupation. May 7, 2022. © 2022 REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, large numbers of Ukrainian civilians from the Mariupol area and elsewhere in Ukraine, including those fleeing the hostilities, ended up crossing into Russia or Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. There’s no one account that encapsulates how all Ukrainians were displaced to Russia. Many, like “Svitlana,” were transferred to Russia forcibly, loaded onto buses or military trucks and taken to the Russian border, a serious violation of the laws of war amounting to a war crime and a potential crime against humanity.

Not everyone who ended up in Russia was herded up in this way, and not all were the victims of forcible transfer. “Roman,” for example, went to Russia under very dire circumstances, thinking it was his only means of survival after managing to escape forced conscription by Russian-linked forces. The cases of “Svitlana” and Roman are among the many cases documented by Human Rights Watch in the new report, “We Had No Choice.”

We spoke to Svitlana and Roman after each were already safe in the European Union, but both asked that we not use their real names to protect their respective families, who remain vulnerable in Russia and in Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine.

Svitlana (Mariupol – Russia – EU)

“Svitlana,” 24, lived in the outskirts of Mariupol with her mother and 14-year-old brother. Her grandparents, aunt, uncle—and their children, aged 15 and 9— also lived in the same neighborhood. Svitlana worked as a translator and was getting a master’s degree in gender studies. Just a few days after Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion, heavy shelling of their neighborhood drove Svitlana and her family into the basement of a local community center. By March 2, the shelling was so intense that Svitlana did not venture outside until March 15, when Russian soldiers entered the basement where she and her family were sheltering with around 60 other civilians. This is when her long and unwanted journey began.

The soldiers ordered all the women, children, and older people to leave the basement and walked them to a nearby schoolhouse, used as a military base by Russian soldiers and Russian affiliated forces of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR). Later, they were moved to a former Ukrainian military base on the city’s edge, which Russian and DNR forces were occupying. Younger men, with few exceptions, were not allowed to accompany their families. Some women begged to stay with their husbands and sons, but the soldiers refused.

Svitlana and her family, except her uncle and grandfather who did not join them, stayed at the schoolhouse with others – about 90 people in total. Late that night without explanation, the soldiers loaded everyone onto military trucks. “Where are you taking us?” Svitlana asked. The soldiers brushed her off. After a 30-minute drive, they arrived in Kalchik, a village about 30 kilometers from Mariupol and newly occupied by Russian forces, and spent the night in a half-constructed school. It was cold and chaotic. Russian soldiers occupied the building and ignored all questions. Local residents brought in food, water, and blankets. A man in a DNR police uniform seemed to be in charge, and when people begged him to tell them where they were going, he yelled they should be “grateful” for being taken care of.  Buses took them to Bezimenne, another DNR-controlled village. “It felt like [we were] being convoyed,” Svitlana said.

There, Svitlana was able to get online, and it was only then that she realized Mariupol was being bombed. “We had no connectivity for two weeks, and we genuinely thought that the awful shelling was only about our neighborhood [in the outskirts], not the actual city … I just could not believe it.”

In Bezimmene, they underwent filtration, an abusive form of compulsory security screening, in a large tent, along with hundreds of other displaced or transferred Ukrainians, mostly older people, women, and children. Svitlana could tell by their uniforms that the staff were mainly DNR forces and Russian servicemen. “When you come in, the first thing they order you to do is to give them your phone and the password to unlock it. They then plug the phone into a computer and keep it connected for about 20 minutes.” Based on what Svitlana could overhear, the soldiers were uploading contact details and other data from the phone into a database. Officials took Svitlana’s photograph and finger and palm prints and asked questions, including passport information and address. After the interrogation, she said, she had to fill out a questionnaire about whether she had relatives in Ukraine, how she felt about the Ukrainian authorities and developments in Mariupol and Ukraine, and whether she had links to Ukrainian right-wing armed groups. After some more questioning, her phone was returned and she was put on a bus, with her family and others.

The bus stopped near the Russian border. The night was freezing, and the buses had no heat or toilets. It was especially rough on the children and older people, Svitlana said. The kids cried all night long. Some of the women complained to the solders, asking how much longer they would be held on the bus. By that time, she said, everyone understood they were being transferred to Russia and, with no other choice and no say in the matter, just wanted the ordeal to end. The soldiers barked that they should keep quiet “or else.”

By the time the group was allowed to leave the bus at the border crossing, it was past noon the next day. An official distributed migration cards to fill out, as well as an application to receive a one-time payment of 10,000 rubles from the Russian government, which Svitlana and her family refused. Russian security agents and riot police officers were pulling people out for questioning. They mostly focused on men but also interrogated some women, including Svitlana. The interrogator took down her phone’s IMEI number, which is akin to a phone’s unique digital fingerprint, and asked her numerous questions.

“That interrogation really spooked me somehow,” Svitlana recalled. “The way he [the interrogator] was asking questions, it was as if he knew something about me, as if I was about to get accused of something … He was grilling me for an hour … rephrasing his questions, apparently trying to catch me in a lie. He asked me about the Ukrainian military, about the people my family had sheltered with [in Mariupol] … It made me so nervous, so paranoid.”

After crossing the border into Russia, Svitlana and her family wanted to travel on immediately on their own – she had friends in Russia who could help. But they were made to travel by bus to a train station in Taganrog before finally being allowed to leave on their own. Svitlana’s friends arranged for temporary lodging and transportation, and the family made it out of Russia and to Western Europe within the next few days.

Roman (Donetsk – Russia – Sweden)

Roman, 43, lived in Donetsk all his life. When Russian-backed armed groups seized control of Donetsk in the summer of 2014, he thought of leaving but felt he needed to stay with his aging parents. When DNR authorities ordered a pre-emptive evacuation of women, children, and older people to Russia on February 18, a week before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he and his friends, most of them working at the local philharmonics and theaters, were skeptical. Over the eight years of armed conflict, they got used to local propagandists’ warnings of imminent attacks by Ukrainian forces that never materialized. When DNR authorities declared a mobilization of men between 18 and 55, and there were rumors of men being rounded up and drafted, Roman treated it as yet another propaganda bluff.

On the morning of February 28, four days into the invasion, Roman left his apartment to go to a pharmacy. Several armed men in fatigues stopped him, ordered him to hand over his passport, and took him to Donetsk’s School #19. They led him into the school gym, where he saw dozens of men from Donetsk, looking spooked and lost, some in slippers, and several servicemen in military uniforms reviewing long lists.

They asked for Roman’s name. “Yes, your name is on the list. Greetings, volunteer! Join the others and wait for a bit,” an officer told him. Later, an officer made a speech to the group of men about how proud and honored they should be of “fulfilling the sacred duty to protect the Motherland,” and they were led into the school yard, where five white shuttle buses waited.

Everyone on Roman’s bus had also been rounded up forcibly. The buses stopped in Horlivka, a small town 50 kilometers from Donetsk, at a deserted industrial complex. An angry officer stormed out of one of the tents and started screaming at the men’s convoy, “Why the fuck did you bring [them] here? I don’t need them! I don’t even know what to do with those who had been brought to me earlier today. Take them away!”

The buses then drove to Yenakijeve, another town in DNR-controlled territory, and the story pretty much repeated itself. Finally, the buses took everyone back to Donetsk and stopped by the iron gates of a former meat processing factory that had been turned into a large DNR military base. The “conscripts” were herded into the yard and the gates shut behind them. “We were forced to form six or seven rows, there were bright search lights coursing through the yard, and some servicemen in fatigues were yelling at us. It felt like being in a film about a prison camp,” Roman recalled. “An officer then ordered that when your name is called, you walk into the building, some agents from the DNR Security Ministry will interview you, and then you get your uniform, and your service begins.”

It was late at night, and Roman was exhausted and felt faint from fear and hunger. He called out to a woman in a military uniform walking by, explaining that he had a chronic kidney condition, was barely able to stand, and needed to see a doctor. “This one isn’t fit for service. Get him out of here!” she said to two junior officers.

Roman was put on another bus, but had no idea where he was being taken. A few minutes into the trip, he told the soldiers he was about to lose his bowels and begged be allowed to step out and relieve himself.  After getting off the bus crawled through bushes and ran, eventually reaching an apartment building where friends lived.

The next evening his friends took him to an empty apartment belonging to acquaintances who had left the city. Roman stayed there for almost ten days, afraid to even step out. He could hear explosions nearby. The building lost heat and water. He ate and drank whatever his friends managed to sneak in late at night. “I was losing my mind, I thought I would die there.” He began looking online for a way to escape the DNR. He had heard that getting from Donetsk to Ukraine-controlled territory would be impossible, but he found a chat on Telegram called “Transfer from DNR to Russia.” He wrote that he wanted to leave as soon as possible. Several people got back to him saying they could take him for a hefty fee. He chose one at random: “it was like playing Russian roulette.” The man promised to deliver him safely to the Russian border for US$1,000. Roman’s friends scrambled to get him the money.

The “ferryman” picked Roman up in his car, drove to a DNR checkpoint in the outskirts of the city, and told Roman to sit tight. Roman thought that the man was about to hand him over to the DNR soldiers. But he returned just a few minutes later, wearing a DNR military uniform, and he restarted the car. They drove on, through numerous checkpoints, but their car was never stopped as the driver waved a special ID from the car window. He took Roman to the Russian border, walked him across, exchanging pleasantries with Russian border guards, and then left.

Roman was in a daze. All he had was a small backpack with his Ukrainian passport, 6,000 rubles (close to US$50 at the time), and a change of underwear. He was afraid of everyone and everything, but somehow managed to find a shuttle bus heading for Rostov, the nearest Russian city. From there, he called his Russia-based relatives, who over the next five days pulled together enough money to buy him plane tickets from Sochi to Istanbul and onward to Stockholm. In mid-March, he arrived in Sweden and asked for asylum at passport control.

A few weeks later, when he got his bearings and fully realized he was in a safe country, provided with housing free of charge and a refugee stipend, Roman cautiously reached out to his friends in Donetsk, only to learn that several of his closest mates from the local Philharmonic and the Opera House, had been forcibly drafted by the DNR and sent to the frontline, “like cannon fodder.”

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