Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Accounts of interrogations, strip-searches emerge from Russian ‘filtration’ camps in Ukraine

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Shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, reports of so-called ‘filtration’ camps in the country’s east began to emerge. Since then, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have passed through the centres, where Russian forces hunt for Ukrainian “nationalists”. This means that many of those being processed are subject to interrogations, strip-searches or worse. 

In early April, Vitaly and his wife and one-year-old daughter were offered a safe passage out of Mariupol. The Russians were going to evacuate them and other civilians by bus to Nikolske, a small industrial town controlled by pro-Russian forces around 20 kilometres northwest of the besieged city.

Once they arrived, the men were separated from the women, and sent toward a trailer where they were told they would be searched. Or “filtered”, as the troops guarding them put it.

“We took turns going into the trailer, where two soldiers checked everything: phones, tattoos, personal belongings,” he told the independent Russian-language news website Meduza in a May 12 interview. When Vitaly entered the trailer, he saw two men stripped to their underwear – one of them with his hands behind his head facing the wall, and the other sitting in a corner on the floor.

“As I understood it, they recognised [them as] participants of some anti-Russian rallies.”

Vitaly, who was also strip-searched, was luckier, but only after successfully managing to explain why he had an American eagle tattooed on his body, and why his mobile phone was so clean of any messenger apps. “I had to prove I had nothing to do with the [Ukrainian military],” he said. “In the end they let me go.”

‘Men are rounded up and sent for filtration’Vitaly’s story is one of the many such testimonies surfacing from filtration camps that are mainly located in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russian and local pro-Russian separatist forces often work in tandem.

While some Ukrainians are forcibly brought to the camps, others have no other choice but to come on their own, since they are often part of the Russian evacuation process in besieged areas.  

According to Human Rights Watch, there are at least 13 of these centres now in operation. “Males, especially in places like Mariupol, are literally rounded up and sent for filtration,” Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director for Humans Rights Watch, told FRANCE 24. “It’s organised by the DPR [the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”] with assistance from Russia,” she said, listing some of the best-known locations as Novoszovsk, Dokuchaevo, Staribesheve, Bezymenne and Kazatske.

But the intense filtration tactics are not just reserved for men. Anna Zaytseva, a French teacher from Mariupol whose husband was taken prisoner of war while fighting with the Azov regiment – a Ukrainian far-right volunteer battalion – told FRANCE 24 how she was interrogated and strip-searched during her evacuation.

“They told us to strip. I have a tattoo that says ‘life is beautiful’ in French. They [the soldiers] thought it wasn’t French, that maybe it was German, and they thought that it might be evidence that I somehow have Nazi connections,“ she said.

‘He is in captivity and wounded’

02:22

‘Villages turn into internment camps’Lokshina described the filtration camp stays as “very intrusive and painful“, noting that sometimes, the process can last for several days, or even weeks.

She recounted a testimony she received from a man who was “rounded up” along with around 200 males in Mariupol in late April and sent to a filtration camp in Kazatske. “They had their passports taken and were told the process would only take a few days.”

Although the screening itself only took a few days, the men never had their passports handed back to them, meaning they were unable to leave. “The entire area was literally crawling with military, and trying to leave those villages without a passport would be completely suicidal. Although they’re not kept under lock and key as such, the villages basically turn into internment camps.”

‘He came back totally numb’In the meantime, the men were put up in a local school in almost prison-like conditions, given only food like rice, bread and pasta to eat. “They basically slept on desks and in the hallways. Many of them got sick, sick with respiratory diseases, likely covid, flu and all sorts of stomach bugs, because the quality of the water was not fit for drinking. People were vomiting, and had diarrhoea. It was horrendous.” 

During their stay, which would last a total of 40 days, one man got particularly frustrated and kept on questioning the pro-Russian forces about why they were being held.

”Then at some point, my interlocutor told me that the DPR forces just came for him and said: ‘So, you have some questions why you’re being kept here? We’re going to answer those questions.’ And then they took him away. Four days later, they brought him back. When he came back, he was totally numb. He wouldn’t say a word about what happened to him. Although there were no visible signs of torture, I think it’s safe to assume that he had an intense and painful experience.”

All of a sudden the men in Kazatske were handed back their passports and let go. But no reason or explanation was ever given for their lengthy stay.

Those who make it though filtration, those who don’tLokshina explained that those who pass the filtration tests are handed a document with the letters FP – Filtration Point – written on it, meaning they can move “freely” within and around the DPR.

Then there are those who don’t make it through the filtration, but little is known about their actual fate.

Lokshina pointed to a case in Bezymenne, where a group of Ukrainian males filmed the living conditions of the filtration camp they had been confined to, and uploaded it to the internet.

Once the video hit social media, their captors rounded them up and took them away. ”According to trustworthy information, but it’s not official, it appears they are in DPR-controlled territory, in jail. They are being accused of filming in a place where filming is supposedly forbidden, and for spreading fake news.”

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the filtration camps, dubbing them as “lies”, while the self-declared DPR has rejected all Ukrainian accusations of unlawfully detaining, filtrating and maltreating Ukrainian civilians in what it itself officially refers to as “reception centres”.

Internationally, however, the camps have received harsh criticism, and even been compared to Nazi Germany’s concentration camps.

“Reports indicate that Russian Federal Security agents are confiscating passports and IDs, taking away cellphones, and separating families from one another,” she said. “I do not need to spell out what these so-called filtration camps are reminiscent of. It’s chilling, and we cannot look away,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said in an April 5 briefing to the UN Security Council.

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