Footage and photos posted over the weekend show civilians arriving by bus to the Russian-controlled city of Bezimenne – about 16 miles east of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol – in a convoy of Russian tanks carrying the letter Z and the United Nations ( UN) vehicles.
In the photos published by Reuters on Sunday, women, children and the elderly appear from buses to an area with white tents. Some cling to bags of their belongings. You hold a cat holder. Soldiers in unmarked fatigue, carrying rifles, patrol the area.
A woman, an employee at Mariupol’s huge steelworks in Azovstal, said she spent weeks hiding in the maze of Soviet-era bunkers under the facility – the last remaining stay in the fought city. She said she had previously tried to escape Mariupol in evacuation corridors but was unable to leave due to the relentless shelling.
“The shelling was so strong that it kept hitting near us. At the end of the bomb shelter, on the top few steps, one could breathe when there was not enough oxygen. I was scared at all. to go out and breathe some fresh air, “said the employee.
I can not believe it. Two months of darkness. When we were in [evacuation] bus I told my husband ‘Vasya, shall we not go to the toilet with a flashlight? And not to use a bag, a trash can [as a toilet] with a flashlight, ”she added. “We did not see any sunlight. We were scared.”
Over the weekend, both Ukrainian and Russian officials said dozens of civilians were evacuated from the factory and the surrounding area by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that about 100 people were rescued from Azovstal and headed for Zaporizhzhia, and there were hopes that more would be able to leave on Monday.
Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that 46 people left the wider Azovstal complex on Saturday and that 80 civilians were “rescued” from the works on Sunday before being taken to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The ministry said a number of these people had “voluntarily decided to stay in the DPR”, which has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
While the ministry claimed that civilians evacuated from Azovstal, who wanted to travel to Ukrainian-controlled areas, were “handed over to representatives of the UN and ICRC”, it is unclear whether everyone was given the choice of where to go.
A CNN investigation in April revealed that Russian forces and allied separatist soldiers took Mariupol residents to a so-called “filtration center” set up in Bezimenne, where they were registered before being sent on to Russia – many against their will. The Ukrainian government and local Mariupol officials say tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly deported to the Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia since the war began.
In April, CNN interviewed 10 people, including local Mariupol residents and their loved ones, who were led by Russian and DPR soldiers to Russian-controlled cities against their will before being deported to the Russian Federation.
CNN spoke with two people who were brought to Bezimenne before being sent to Russia. They described a massive military tent in which Russian soldiers and DPR soldiers treated hundreds of people – they were taken with fingerprints, photographed, their phones searched, interrogated, passports reviewed and registered in databases.
Satellite images from Maxar Technologies reviewed by CNN show a tent camp in Bezimenne. According to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko, it is one of four “filtering camps” that DPR and Russia operate around the city.
“We have the official statistics that we have verified with the community register – over 40,000 local residents who underwent the filtration and showed up in either the so-called DPR or the Russian Federation,” Boichenko said on April 25. “Some Mariupol residents have survived to come to Ukrainian controlled areas now and witness the whole process. “
The day before, Zelensky said in his nightly speech that the government continued to monitor Russia’s so-called filtering camps near Mariupol. “Facts about the deportation of our citizens to the Russian hinterland, to Siberia and even to Vladivostok have been recorded,” he said. “Children are also being deported. They hope children will forget where their homes are, but they are from Ukraine.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from deporting or transferring civilian populations. Ukraine’s attorney general and international rights watchdog have said Russia’s forced removal of civilians could constitute a war crime.
Moscow continues to claim that it is evacuating civilians from dangerous regions of Ukraine. Russian Colonel Mikhail Mizintsev said on Saturday that more than 1 million Ukrainians, including nearly 200,000 children, had been evacuated to Russia so far, according to TASS.
Read CNN’s investigation into Russia’s deportations here: