Lviv, Ukraine — When Russian forces and allied separatist soldiers arrived offering a path to safety, it felt like a sick twist of fate.
It was mid-March and residents in Mariupol had spent weeks in freezing, damp basements, hiding from relentless Russian bombardment and fearing for their lives. Now, they were being told that to survive, there was only one way out: to Russia.
If they didn’t leave they would die in the rubble, the Russian soldiers warned. They said they had little choice.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s siege of Mariupol has come to epitomize his scorched-earth war in Ukraine. The assault from land, air and sea has leveled the southern port city to the ground, destroying or damaging 90% of its infrastructure, according to the mayor. A drama theater and an art school sheltering hundreds of women and children were obliterated. A maternity hospital was bombed.
More than 100,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, living in dire and rapidly deteriorating conditions without water, food, heat or electricity. Because communication to the city has largely been cut off, it’s nearly impossible for residents to know when it might be safe to surface from bomb shelters, or how to catch evacuation buses out. Many attempts to set up evacuation corridors have collapsed due to continued attacks.
Rather than allowing safe passage out of the city, Russian and separatist troops are taking tens of thousands of civilians to so-called “filtration centers” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow recognizes as independent, before moving them to Russia, according to Ukraine’s government, humanitarian watchdogs, and US officials. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereschuk has estimated that some 45,000 Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly deported since the war began.
The Mariupol City Council said in a statement that Russia’s failure to agree on evacuation corridors, and its creation of filtration centers, were part of a broader effort to cover up potential war crimes carried out in the city. “The occupiers try to identify all potential witnesses to the occupiers’ atrocities through filtration camps and destroy them,” the council said. CNN could not verify that claim.
The practice has stirred painful memories of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s forced deportation of millions from their homelands, including more than 230,000 Crimean Tatars, to remote parts of the Soviet Union during World War II. Russian forces also used “filtration camps” during the war in Chechnya in the 1990s, where human rights groups documented extensive abuses, including torture, hostage-taking and extrajudicial killings.
“I do not need to spell out what these so-called ‘filtration camps’ are reminiscent of. It’s chilling and we cannot look away,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. She cited credible reports – including from Mariupol City Council – of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents confiscating passports and IDs, taking away cell phones, and separating Ukrainian families from one another.
Few families in Mariupol have been left unscathed by Russia’s reign of terror. In a recent press conference, Mariupol’s mayor said that some of his neighbors and municipal colleagues were taken to Russia against their will. “A man with a weapon comes in at night and says it’s an evacuation. People who have been in the shelter for about 20 days get out, they’re put in the car and sent somewhere. In the morning, they saw that this was not Ukraine,” Vadym Boychenko said. “Then they were put on trains and they were already going to the hinterland of the Russian Federation.”
Moscow has denounced the claims as lies, alleging that Ukraine has hindered its efforts to “evacuate” people to Russia. Russian Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev said that more than 550,000 people had been evacuated from “dangerous regions of Ukraine” to Russia since the war began, including more than 121,000 people from Mariupol, according to state-owned Russian news agency TASS.
But a CNN investigation into deportations reveals a very different reality, one in which people were given only two options: Go to Russia or die. In interviews with 10 people, including local Mariupol residents and their loved ones, many describe Russian and DPR soldiers descending on bomb shelters and ordering those inside to leave immediately. None knew where they were being taken.
Some said that after weeks of uncertainty they didn’t care where they ended up – that anywhere would be safer than Mariupol, in their view. Five were ultimately sent to Russia; three have since made it out.
They have asked to be identified only by their first names, or by pseudonyms for their protection. All have shared evidence of their journey with CNN, including copies of the Russian migration cards they filled out and had stamped at the border. Those still in Russia, who are trying to find a way back home, are worried for their safety.
These are some of their stories.
After weeks of heavy shelling, the basement where Andrey was sheltering with his neighbors was starting to crumble. They had to leave, he thought, before the ceiling caved in.
Andrey, a 45-year-old athletic trainer, had repeatedly tried to escape from the left bank of Mariupol’s Kalmius River and join evacuation convoys leaving the city from the other side. But he had been unable – by car or foot – to navigate streets littered with corpses and debris to cross the central bridge. CNN analyzed satellite imagery of the four bridges on the Kalmius; all were impassable or destroyed by March 22.
In the rare moments Andrey had cell service, he called and texted his wife Iryna, a 50-year-old English teacher living in a suburb of Kyiv. He was desperate to find safe passage from Mariupol so that the couple of 15 years could be reunited. And yet there appeared to be no way out. “It seemed there were no options. Because of that, we already understood that we would appear either in the DPR or in the Russian Federation,” Andrey said. “There was a feeling that the left bank was simply abandoned.”
Iryna shared their messages on WhatsApp and Telegram with CNN, revealing her gut-wrenching attempts to help her husband. Each text was signed off with the date and time, so they could be sure when it was sent. In response, Andrey, frustrated, told her he was unable to locate the evacuation convoys she mentioned, but would continue to try.
In a last-ditch effort, Iryna reached out to her mother in Russia, with whom she had stopped speaking because of disagreements over the war. If Andrey had no other way out of Mariupol, could he stay with her, she asked. Her mother said yes. “He didn’t want to go to Russia, he wanted to go home, he really wanted to go home. But in such a situation it was necessary to decide. Either go there and stay alive or stay in Mariupol and die from a bullet or under the rubble,” she said.
On March 17, Andrey was told by a neighbor that Russian troops were entering people’s homes and demanding that residents evacuate. The next day, he and his neighbors fled their shelter and ran to a checkpoint near the sea. There, DPR soldiers told the men to undress to the waist and searched them for “tattoos,” then checked their passports, before taking them in cars to Bezimenne, a seaside town 16 miles east.
Andrey was put in a school, where he said his passport and cell phone were checked again; he heard rumors of a tent camp nearby but wasn’t taken there. Officials at the school asked whether he was planning to stay in the DPR or go elsewhere. “Maybe there were only a couple of acquaintances who wanted to go to Russia. But basically, everyone who wanted to leave wanted to leave for Ukraine,” he said. None were given that option.
On March 21, Andrey said he was taken to Dokuchaevsk, 65 miles north in the Donetsk region, to what he described as a “filtration center,” where Ukrainians were processed. He was fingerprinted, photographed, his phone searched and contacts downloaded.
Maxar satellite imagery showed white buses parked outside the Center of Culture and Leisure in Dokuchaevsk, where Andrey said he was registered. The “filtration center” in Dokuchaevsk has been cited by the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Michael Carpenter, among other officials.
Two days later, Andrey said he was driven back south to Novoazovsk and then across the border to Russia, where he went through customs, had his passport checked and migration card stamped. Early on March 24, he was taken by bus to Taganrog, a Russian port city on the Sea of Azov, where a refugee center was set up at an Olympic sports school. Andrey took a 10-hour train from Taganrog to Voronezh, where he is now staying with his mother-in-law. He said that at the train station in Taganrog, he saw other Ukrainians who had no money or documents taken by force to Penza, more than 600 miles northeast, deep into Russian territory.
Andrey is trying to figure out how to return from Voronezh to Ukraine, possibly through Belarus.
“Some people in Ukraine may think that those who left for Russia are traitors, but this is an exception to the rule. Most people understand that we were going where we can get out. But some do not understand that we had no choice – we had only one road, this was to Novoazovsk,” he said.
Human rights defender, Svetlana Gannushkina, who runs a refugee organization in Moscow, told CNN she has received dozens of requests for help from Ukrainians like Andrey, now stranded in towns and cities dotted across Russia. Many decided to stay with friends or relatives, with the largest number gathered in the Rostov region, near Ukraine. Those who have reached out have told her that the choice to come to Russia was made for them.
“These are people who find themselves between two fires in a completely terrible situation,” Gannushkina said. “There is no question of free will here. They went where they could go at that moment. And there was no other road but the road to Russia.”
Anna had been living in a bunker for two weeks, sheltering in a northern suburb of Mariupol with her family, when the soldiers stormed inside. “They came in and said, ‘It’s an order: Women and children have to leave.’ Some of those who asked to stay were told no,” the 24-year-old translator told CNN.
The men were dressed in military uniforms and carrying weapons, but she said it was impossible to tell whether they were DPR or Russian forces because they weren’t wearing insignia and didn’t identify themselves.
All of the women and children were forced out – about 90 in total, including her mother, teenage brother, grandmother, aunt and her aunt’s two children. When Anna emerged above ground, she could hardly recognize the landscape. “Everything was completely destroyed,” she said.
Anna described being bused to a nearby town, where they were questioned by DPR police officers overnight in a school. On March 16, she said they were sent east to the Ukrainian village of Bezimenne, where they were directed to a “registration camp.”
At a massive military tent, they were joined by hundreds of other people from Mariupol – about 900 altogether, she was told by one soldier – where they were fingerprinted and photographed, their phones searched and contacts downloaded. “Once you surrender your phone, they check you in for the first phase of the process. They photograph you from all angles, for facial recognition I suspect. Next you give them your fingerprints and, strangely, palm prints. I don’t know why,” Anna said. “After that they enter your details in the database, like your address, phone number, and passport information. The next stage you go in for questioning.”
They were interrogated about their politics, attitudes towards the DPR and Russian authorities. Questions included information about relatives serving in the Azov battalion, the Ukrainian army’s main presence in Mariupol, she said.
Satellite images from Maxar Technologies show a tent encampment in Bezimenne, near the school where Andrey and other Mariupol residents said that they stayed. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has not been able to verify the number of Mariupol residents taken to Bezimenne or other parts of the DPR, but say they believe the number is “considerable” based on statements from DPR officials and interviews with several people moved to Donetsk. “In some cases, the residents expressed their clear preference to be evacuated to government-controlled territory but were told that only the evacuation towards the territory of the self-proclaimed ‘republic’ or the Russian Federation was possible,” a mission spokesperson told CNN.
Russian state-owned domestic news agency RIA Novosti published a report on Mariupol refugees in Bezimenne on March 25, describing DPR officials providing food, medical care and shelter for people displaced from the city to “help them feel safe.” One photo caption reads: “People have to decide what to do next.” DPR officials say that more than 11,000 people from Mariupol are now in Donetsk.
After several hours, Anna said she was bused to the Russian border, where she was given a migration card and a voucher for 10,000 rubles (about $100). They were brought through Russian customs, had their documents stamped and then, Anna said, she was selected for questioning by someone she suspected was an officer with the FSB. “We were treated like criminals, being held as the property of the Russian Federation. I didn’t feel we were free to leave,” she said.
Police accompanied their bus into Taganrog, where they were dropped off at a railway station. Those who didn’t have family or friends in Russia, or money for transport, were being sent to Vladimir, a town more than 600 miles east. Anna said her aunt and children, who fled Mariupol without any of their documentation, were taken there.
Anna, her mother, grandmother and brother broke away to go to Rostov; they were allowed to do so because they had friends there, she said. From Rostov, Anna traveled by train to Moscow, then St. Petersburg, and eventually crossed the border from Russia into northern Estonia on March 22. In a separate interview, Anna’s mother, who has also managed to leave Russia, corroborated her account.
Anna said she felt that the evacuation was some kind of “trap all along.” And although she had been terrified to go to Russia, she said the fear of staying in an occupied area of Ukraine was greater.
Dmytrii moved to Mariupol in February to attend university. Less than a month later, the 21-year-old masters student found himself hiding out with thousands of other people in Terrasport, a sports complex-turned-shelter in the city.
On March 14, he said that DPR soldiers turned up at the center. “They said, ‘We’re taking over the building. Go away for evacuation,’ but they didn’t say where to go,” Dmytrii recalled. “They were smiling and we had to smile back to stay safe, no one wanted to have problems.”
Crowds of people fled on foot to a checkpoint near the Portcity shopping mall, about 1.5 miles away, where they spotted buses emblazoned with the letter Z – a symbol that has become synonymous with support for Russia’s brutal war. Dmytrii said they’d never seen the sign before.
At the checkpoint, men were asked to undress so they could be checked for tattoos. Dmytrii said displaced people were told they could be taken to Russia or find their own way Ukraine, but were later advised that Ukrainians would do nothing to help them. “‘Nobody will evacuate you. Ukrainian authorities don’t give a damn about you,’” Dmytrii recalled the soldiers saying.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, said that she interviewed several people transferred from Mariupol to Russia, who described similar ultimatums. “They were told, ‘You have an option to stay and die, or to go to Russia.’ And for sure, it’s not an option at all,” Matviichuk told CNN, adding that they were pressured with disinformation about Ukraine’s willingness to take them in. “They were told that, ‘There is no empty space in Ukrainian cities, they couldn’t provide you accommodation. Only Russia can do it.’”
She continued: “Regardless of whether Russian troops used physical violence to transfer them to Russia or not. It’s illegal. Why? Because according to standards of international humanitarian law, the sides of the conflict have to open humanitarian corridors and provide a possibility for civilians to safely evacuate from the dangerous zone. But the problem is that Russia hasn’t allowed these corridors.”
Dmytrii said that the “Z” buses drove them 10 miles northwest to Nikolske, a town in the DPR, where they were brought to a “registration camp” set up in a school. “There was Russian humanitarian aid, posters – everything to pretend like ‘we help you,’” he recounted. There they were registered, passport checked, and put on the list of “refugees.”
Soon after, they were told there was no room for them to stay in the town and were loaded onto 13 buses bound for Russia. At the Novoazovsk border crossing they were once again interrogated and their phones checked. “We were really afraid for our documents – we thought they can take them away. But it didn’t happen,” Dmytrii said.
The group was told they would be sent to Rostov, but instead they ended up at a refugee center in the Taganrog Olympic sports school. There, Dmytrii said, he was given a SIM card, food and toiletries for a shower. He hadn’t slept for 48 hours and was exhausted.
When he heard an announcement that a train was departing for Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, he decided to take it. Dmytrii said that he and other Ukrainians were brought to a recreation center in Sakharezh, in Yaroslavl region, where hundreds were being processed for refugee status, registered for biometrics, given Russian bank cards, offered jobs and interrogated by who he believed were FSB agents. “It was very well organized. In my opinion, they were trying to assimilate us,” he said.
In hushed conversations, Ukrainians at the center passed information and plotted how they might get out. Estonia seemed to be the best option. Dmytrii registered for a bank card so that Russian relatives could send him rubles. He purchased train tickets to Moscow, then St. Petersburg and finally Ivangorod. At the Ivangorod-Narva border crossing to Estonia, Dmytrii said he was asked by a Russian official why he was travelling without documents – he had Ukrainian ID, but not a passport.
“If we were taken to Novoazovsk with smiles, then there was already a boorish attitude. It was visible. A woman who took my documents to register, asked me, ‘Why the hell did you come to the border without international passport?’”
Dmytrii, who is now safely in Estonia, replied, “And why the hell did you forcibly take me to this land from my Ukraine?”
Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from Lviv. Oleksandra Ochman reported from Lviv. Gianluca Mezzofiore and Katie Polglase reported from London. Teele Rebane reported from Hong Kong. Nathan Hodge and Yuliia Presniakova contributed reporting.
Video by Lauren Kent and Oscar Featherstone.