Vera and Nicole thought they had endured the worst of the war when Russia besieged their city, Mariupol, for weeks. The sisters helped neighbors bury neighbors, melted snow for drinking water, and survived a bombing that tore a hole in the ceiling of their home.
But in mid-March, they knew it was time to leave. They heard that the Russian invaders were sweeping the southern port city and transferring Ukrainians by bus either to Russia or to Russian-controlled territory.
The sisters took Vera’s 4-year-old son, Kirill, slipped out of Mariupol on foot and embarked on a shocking journey. They said they crossed a heavily mined road strewn with corpses; encountered a Russian sniper near a church, who waved them on; and survived an artillery barrage in a field of flowers. After two days, the trio staggered out onto a highway, only to be greeted by a Russian soldier who was directing them to a packed bus.
“He told us he had freed us and asked why our faces had turned dark,” Nicole said. “The road ahead may have been a prison – but it was our only option.”
The bus took them to a school in the nearby town of Nikolske, which they said had been converted into a Russian-run registration center, where Ukrainians filled out forms with their personal information. It was their first ordeal with what Ukrainian and US officials and human rights groups have called “filtering centers,” which they say are part of a system of forced deportations of Ukrainians to Russia.
Forced population transfer and so-called “filtering” are tactics used by Russia during the Chechen wars in the 1990s, according to Frederick W. Kagan, a senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He said the strategy was to intimidate the population into submission, retain control of witnesses to atrocities and exclude anyone seen as resistant to a Russian takeover.
The story of Vera and Nicole, who asked that their last names not be used for fear of Russian reprisals, first came to light when they contacted a British humanitarian organization, United with Ukraine, which has been working to get help to Mariupol since March. The group arranged contact with The New York Times.
The sisters, who say they are telling their story to show the world what is happening in Russian-controlled territory, have also spoken to other news outlets. They shared videos and a diary with The Times depicting their lives in Mariupol and part of their escape from the city, which has now almost completely fallen under Russian control.
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the group had documented two testimonies of being taken to filtration centers, saying Russia’s actions “bore all the hallmarks of a forced transfer.” She added that the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Russia has signed, prohibits the forcible transfer of civilians from occupied territories, which would make such forcible transfers a war crime.
“We can not rule out that there may be people who have made an informed choice to go to Russia,” Ms. Denber. But, she said, other Ukrainians “leave because they have no choice but to either go to the occupying power or die.”
Roads out of Russian-held territory are also notoriously dangerous in some places.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, recently told the Security Council that there were filtering centers in three Russian-controlled cities – Nikolske, Manhush and Yalta. All three, like Mariupol, are part of the Donetsk region, which borders Russia.
Vera and Nicole said they stayed briefly in filtration centers in two of these three cities during their flight from Mariupol.
The two centers that Vera and Nicole went through in Nikolske and Manhush were not heavily guarded, and some there were given the opportunity to stay or walk, they said. But they said it was not much of a choice: the Russians offered only safe passage in one direction, and it was not to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
“For some, their houses were destroyed and there was nowhere to go,” Vera said. “Others were there to save their children. This was the only safe option for them.”
Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights, has denied that Ukrainians were forcibly transferred to Russia. President Vladimir V. Putin says about a million Ukrainians have been taken to Russia, but he describes the movement as evacuations.
The Russian authorities have described the invasion of Ukraine as a necessary mission to help their ethnic relatives, whom they say are discriminated against. They have portrayed efforts to bring people displaced from eastern Ukraine to Russia as a humanitarian operation to rescue them from the Ukrainian authorities.
Vera and Nicole’s ordeal began around mid-March when Russian soldiers tightened their grip on Mariupol. Nicole said she had heard a radio report saying the International Committee of the Red Cross had begun evacuating people from the outskirts of the city.
“We were terrified,” said Nicole, 21. “But every day we waited, we knew it was getting harder to leave.”
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They decided to risk it, even though it meant leaving members of their family behind.
They said goodbye to their brother, who feared that if he left with them, he would be stopped by Russian soldiers who had reportedly been strip-men of military age, checking evidence of service or training, such as tattoos or hard skin. on their trigger. fingers. Their mother, who had been separated from them since the beginning of the invasion, did not even want to know that they had traveled.
In a series of video calls over the past few weeks, the sisters described an escape marked by deaths, including surviving artillery fire in a field.
“It was hell on earth,” said Vera, 27. “We lay down under fire, praying that we would survive.”
The Russian soldier they ran into on the highway put them on a bus to Nikolske. They were taken to a school that had been converted into a filtration site, they said. There were a large number of people filling out forms with personal information. Others slept on pieces of cardboard in the hallways.
They said they managed to evade deportation through a mixture of ingenuity, luck and the kindness of strangers.
They left Nikolske after a few hours with the help of a local Ukrainian bus driver recruited by the Russians to transport residents from Mariupol to filtration sites. He drove them to another school that had been converted into a registration center in a nearby city, Manhush, where he suggested they would have better luck finding a trip to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia.
In kindergarten, the sisters said hundreds of people were waiting to be treated. They recorded their names, dates of birth and where they came from and slept one night in one of the classrooms along with dozens of others.
They heard about a bunch of volunteers who picked people up in vans and took them to Ukrainian-controlled countries. But Vera and Nicole were hesitant: they had heard that such routes were sometimes targeted by Russian forces.
Still, when a Ukrainian man entered the school and offered them a free trip to Berdyansk, near the Russian border – one of the first cities seized by Russia in the war – the sisters took the chance. Although they would still be in Russian-controlled territory when they got there, they reasoned that it was better to keep moving. They also had a relative in Berdyansk.
“I do not know what would have happened if that man had not entered our lives at that moment,” Nicole said.
From Berdyansk, the sisters boarded an evacuation vehicle that was part of a humanitarian corridor to Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine. They knew they had reached Ukrainian-controlled territory when they saw bright yellow municipal buses on the roads.
“We were standing on the street and started crying,” Vera said. “I never thought the sight of a bus could make me so happy.”