Refugees tell of being forced to strip or witnessing beatings as they seek to enter Russia

Nadia Beard in Tbilisi

12 Jun 2022

The Guardian

By the time it was Olena’s turn for interrogation, she had already spent three weeks cold, hungry and sleeping on the floor. Even so, it was the male Russian officer ordering her to take off her blouse for an inspection that she found the worst indignity of the ordeal fleeing her home in Mariupol, Ukraine.  “Bruises on the shoulders could mean you’re a sniper,” Olena explains from a cafe in Tbilisi, Georgia. She was horrified. “I told him, I’m turning 60 years old this August. How could I be a sniper?” The officer didn’t seem to care. “I’m not wearing my glasses anyway,” he told her. “Take your top off now.”

Stories like Olena’s from a filtration camp in Nikolske, a town in the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic (DNR), are common among the growing number of Ukrainian refugees now in Georgia. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an estimated 20,000 Ukrainians have entered Georgia, many arriving from Russia through Georgia’s northern Kazbegi mountain border.

Unable to flee Russian-occupied cities such as Mariupol and Kherson westward into Ukrainian-held territory, many Ukrainians are left with a terrible dilemma: stay in your besieged city, or flee to the country that has destroyed your home.

To enter Russia, many Ukrainians are forced through so-called filtration, a process during which they are photographed, interrogated, their fingerprints taken, and the contents of their phones scrutinised. Men are ordered to strip to their underwear, their bodies searched for tattoos that could reveal a link to Ukrainian nationalist groups. Everyone is questioned on whether they or anyone they know has served in the Ukrainian army.

During Olena’s interrogation, she recalled how a guard questioning a man at the next table found a keyring bearing the image of the Ukrainian coat of arms. Four guards then beat the man savagely with batons and kicks to the head before throwing him outside in sub-zero temperatures without a coat or hat.

Filtration camps have been set up across towns and villages mostly concentrated in the DNR, including Novoazovsk, Mangush, Bezimenne and Nikolske. Ukrainians fleeing Mariupol by bus often arrive at the filtration camps unknowingly, having been told they would be taken to Ukrainian-held cities instead. After arrival, they are usually not allowed to leave the town.

Filtration usually ends in one of two ways: either you “pass” the interrogation and are handed a small, stamped piece of paper with the date of your filtration and the signature of the supervising officer, or you will be detained for further questioning.

The “camps” occupy schools, cultural centres, sports halls and other public buildings. Conditions are often abject and the camps are poorly organised. People like Olena, who was travelling with her 65-year-old sister Tamara and Tamara’s 70-year-old husband and like others interviewed would not give her full name, slept first on the floor, then on a cardboard box. For the first few days there was one meal a day offered by the canteen. Then the Russians closed the canteen altogether and told them to find their own food.

For Maksym and Iulia, from Mariupol, filtration was also a lengthy ordeal, though they were lucky to have been offered a house to stay in nearby that belonged to one of Maksym’s classmates. They spent almost a month waiting to be filtered in Mangush. “Our number in the queue was 347,” Maksym says. “You go in and ask what the number is today, and you realise the number only went down by two or three. Why was it so slow? The process itself takes around 30 minutes.” It was only after Maksym told a military pharmacist that they were running low on insulin for Iulia’s diabetes that their wait was expedited and they were filtered that afternoon. Waiting in a corridor, they saw a man in Ukrainian army fatigues being questioned on his knees, his hands tied behind his back.

Others report a shorter wait time, with some Ukrainians spending only a day or two at the camps before filtration and onward travel to Russia. One 29-year-old couple, Igor and Valentina from Mariupol, report being filtered within six hours of arriving in Nikolske. “The fact my wife was nine months pregnant at the time and we had to get to a hospital as soon as possible probably helped speed things along,” Igor says.

Ukrainians who subsequently escaped to Georgia have avoided the reportedly widespread forced deportations to Russian cities. One woman, Zhanna, told of how her family slipped out of a back door of a filtration centre unnoticed after overhearing an officer say that she, her husband and their young son would be deported to a Russian island near Japan.

With only migration cards, not filtration papers, Zhanna and her family travelled by bus from Novoazovsk to Russia’s Taganrog. From Taganrog, they travelled by train to Vladikavkaz, and crossed into Georgia in a minivan through the border at Kazbegi.

Others say that informing officers of concrete plans to go to a specific Russian city was enough for them to be allowed to make their own way to Russia, and then onwards to Georgia. “You have to tell them you want to stay and make a life in Russia, then they’ll leave you alone,” Maksym says.

Most of the buses taking filtered Ukrainians from the DNR to Russia terminate at Taganrog. There, most buy bus or train tickets to Rostov-on-Don, from where they can organise onward transport. Those who come to Georgia travel south to Vladikavkaz before crossing over into Georgia through the mountain border. Even once they reach the Russian border, their exit is not guaranteed. Men are routinely taken out of the queue and interrogated, their phones examined.

One man, Petya, reported being forced to pay the Russian border guards a bribe in exchange for an exit stamp.

Many of the Ukrainians now in Tbilisi are biding their time until they can return home to Ukraine. “My goddaughter is still in Mariupol and sent me photos with crosses stuck into the ground everywhere. The graves are even in our courtyards,” Olena says. “I want to go home, but that means somewhere in Ukraine not occupied by Russians.”