‘You can’t imagine the conditions’ – Mariupol refugees share trauma of Russia-run detention camps

With Mariupol almost under full Russian control after weeks of bombardment, those who have escaped the southern Ukrainian city share chilling accounts of being held in cramped, unclean, processing camps before being evacuated.

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Oleksandr and Olena are queuing for coffee at a food kitchen just days after escaping from Mariupol.

They are two of the lucky few who managed to flee the city last week. Aside from the Ukrainian forces inside the Azovstal steel works, Mariupol is almost completely under Russian control and is effectively sealed off from the rest of the world.

Any information about the conditions inside the city for the 100,000 civilians still thought to be trapped there is sporadic and difficult to confirm independently.

The couple, who have arrived in the relatively safe western city of Lviv, tell us about surviving inside the city during the fighting. But their experience of one of Russia’s so-called filtration camps, the centres reportedly set up outside Mariupol to hold civilians before they are evacuated, is every bit as chilling.

Oleksandr and Olena say they ended up at a centre when they tried to escape the city. After walking 3km (1.9 miles) from their home to an evacuation point, they were driven to a Russian refugee hub at a former school in the village of Nikolske, north-west of Mariupol.

“It was like a true concentration camp,” Oleksandr, 49, says.

The centres have been compared by Ukrainian officials to those used during Russia’s war in Chechnya, when thousands of Chechens were brutally interrogated and many disappeared.

Oleksandr and Olena were fingerprinted, photographed from all sides, and interrogated for several hours by Russian security officers – “like in a prison”, he says. They worried that the Russians would look at their phones, and so they cleared all evidence from their devices of anything to do with Ukraine – including photos of their daughter in front of a Ukrainian flag.

They were right to worry. Oleksandr says that during their interrogation, Russian security officers examined photographs, phone call history and contact numbers on their devices for links with journalists or government and military officials.

“If a person was suspected of being a ‘Ukrainian Nazi’, they took them to Donetsk for further investigation or murder,” says Oleksandr, although the BBC has not been able to verify this claim. “It was very dangerous and risky. Any small doubt, any small resistance – and they could take you to the basements for interrogation and torture. Everybody was afraid to be taken to Donetsk.”

President Vladimir Putin has stated one of the aims of his invasion is to clear Ukraine of Nazis, and Russian propaganda has made numerous baseless allegations that Ukraine is somehow aligned with Nazism.

As they waited to be processed in a camp, some men offered Oleksandr and Olena a way to escape Mariupol without going through filtration. But the couple were terrified these could be Russians or collaborators.

“We were afraid of them,” Olena says.

Eventually they were detained and put on a list for evacuation. But the ordeal did not stop there.

“You can’t imagine how horrible the conditions were in this filtration camp,” Olena tells us. Elderly people slept in corridors without mattresses or blankets. There was only one toilet and one sink for thousands of people, she says. Dysentery soon began to spread. “There was no way to wash or clean,” she says. “It smelt extremely awful.”

Soap and disinfectant ran out on the second day they were there. Soon, too, did toilet paper and sanitary pads.

After their interrogation, Olena and Oleksandr were told they had permission to leave on the 148th evacuation bus. But a week later, just 20 buses had left the facility. In contrast, there were many buses organised to go to Russian territory. Authorities even tried to force the couple on to a coach heading east, they say. In the end Olena and Oleksandr felt compelled to seek the help of those who had secretly offered them transport out when they arrived.

“We didn’t have any choice – either be forcibly deported to Russia or risk it with these private drivers,” Olena says.

It’s a dilemma that Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, recognises. “Many buses of civilians go to Russian rather than Ukrainian territory,” he told the BBC, over the phone. “From the beginning of war, [the Russians] didn’t allow any way to evacuate civilians. It’s a direct military order to kill civilians,” he claimed.

Oleksandr and Olena’s driver managed to get them from their filtration camp to the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk – through “fields, dirt roads, narrow pathways behind all the checkpoints”, Olena says, because they didn’t have the proper documents to pass a Russian inspection.

They then spent three days looking for a route out before finding another driver who was willing to risk everything to get them to Ukrainian-controlled territory. He managed to get around 12 Russian checkpoints and safely deliver them to Zaporizhzhia. The couple then took an overnight train to Lviv.

“From filtration camps you can only escape using these risky local private drivers,” Oleksandr says. “Fortunately, there are good people among them.”

Arriving in Lviv on the same day were Valentyna and her husband Evgeniy. They also managed to flee Mariupol last week. They were boarding a coach to a smaller city in western Ukraine – desperate for safety after their ordeal.

The filtration process was speedy for them, says Valentyna, 58, perhaps because of their age and because Evgeniy has a disability. But it was far worse for younger people, she said.

“The filtration camps are like ghettos,” she says. “Russians divide people into groups. Those who were suspected of having connections with the Ukrainian army, territorial defence, journalists, workers from the government – it’s very dangerous for them. They take those people to prisons to Donetsk, torture them.”

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