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Ukrainians denounce abuses and beatings in Russian ‘leak’ camps

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

In February, Kharkiv Polytechnic graduate Dmitry* visited Mariupol from the UK to renovate his newly purchased apartment.

But soon, Moscow invaded the Ukraine.

It says he was detained by Russian soldiers during the siege of the port city and then sent through four “filtration camps” in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

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Moscow has said it protects Ukrainians by providing refuge as the war escalates, referring to “checkpoints for civilians leaving the zone of active hostilities.”

But Kyiv claims that what the Kremlin calls evacuations are actually forced deportations carried out with questionable motives.

And Washington alleges that the “leak” efforts are designed to target Ukrainians as threats to Russia’s offensive.

In the end, Dmitry never got to live in his newly renovated apartment.

His property, where he had important documents, some belongings and money, was destroyed in shelling.

The 25-year-old is now seeking refuge in Luxembourg.

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Speaking to Al Jazeera from his hostel there, he said he still wakes up in a sweat, traumatized by his experiences in the camps.

From March to April, he said that He faced death threats and relentless interrogation by Moscow-backed officials in camps in the cities of Staryi Krym, Dokuchaevsk, Taganrog and Novoazovsk, which lie close to the Russia-Ukraine border.

He said he was frequently mocked by the Russian authorities and saw other prisoners beaten, tortured and knocked unconscious.

In the first camp, in Staryi Krym, Dmitry said he was held for a day in a building with broken glass windows.

“It was very cold, I slept in a chair. They kept us without food, water and information about our loved ones,” she said.

“I had to listen to their sick minds. She made me depressed not being able to answer them because it could end badly for me and my family.”

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“[They forced me to go into a] basement and provide them with any information that interests them,” he said.

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When they came across a photo with the Ukrainian flag on his phone, Russian soldiers asked him if he was a “patriot.”

They allegedly accused him of being a “banderita”, a pejorative term referring to Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator often evoked by President Vladimir Putin to criticize Kyiv.

But Dmitry thinks he was finally lucky because the Russian authorities didn’t see him as a threat.

When he arrived at a camp on the Estonian border, he and his acquaintances were planning their escape.

One day, they left the camp before dawn. After two weeks of travel, she crossed a Russian border town and cried.

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“I didn’t know where I was going,” he said.

There, he said, he showered for the first time in two weeks.

“I was in the shower for an hour. It was a good feeling,” she said.

After a long journey on foot and by bus, he finally arrived in Luxembourg.

Treatment in filter fields

More than a million Ukrainians, including the elderly and at least 240,000 children, have reportedly been sent to the Russian Federation since the start of the war, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

It is understood that the actual numbers are much higher.

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“We also know of numerous kidnappings of Ukrainian citizens and their indefinite detention in Russian prisons,” said Mykhailo Savva, who documents what he calls forced kidnappings at the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Center.

The US State Department’s Conflict Observatory, along with researchers from the Yale University Humanitarian Research Laboratory, have identified at least 21 leak sites in and around Donetsk, separatist-controlled territory in the eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied accusations that it has abused people on the sites.

According to the Ukrainians who have passed through them, there are different types of camps.

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Some Ukrainians interviewed by Al Jazeera said they were fingerprinted and strip-searched for “nationalist” tattoos and photographed.

In other cases, Russian authorities have confiscated their passports, searched mobile phones and downloaded contact lists, they said.

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Savva said that Moscow is particularly interested in identifying former Ukrainian soldiers who fought against pro-Russian forces in the 2014 Donbas conflict.

said “c“Kidnapped” Ukrainians continue to be “held” without legal grounds, alleging that beatings, torture, rape and arbitrary executions are widespread.

Some sites are overcrowded and facilities lack sufficient water, food or medical care, he said, allegations that are consistent with claims by human rights groups that have documented life in the camps.

‘My mother wanted to leave, but my father refused’

When war broke out in February, Vitaly*, a 19-year-old from Mariupol, his mother and 10-year-old brother were transported to Russia by bus from the besieged city through the so-called Moscow humanitarian corridor.

But Vitaly said there was nothing humanitarian about the evacuation, which he considers forced.

The Russian occupiers intimidated the residents by shooting at them, he claimed.

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“My mother wanted to leave, but my father refused,” he told Al Jazeera.

When Russia surrounded and shelled the Azovstal plant, where battles had been fought for months, the family car blew up when hit by an artillery shell.

But even if the car had not been destroyed, he said that it would have been impossible to leave Mariupol in it, because the Russian route was the only safe way out.

In the camp, interrogations were routine for everyone, including women, children, and the elderly.

Vitaly and his family were not seen as a threat and he said the interrogators took pity on them.

They passed through a filtration field and ended up in Russia, where they stayed for five days.

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But the brief episode was so heartbreaking that her mentally scarred 10-year-old brother is being treated by a psychotherapist. The boy is recovering, but Vitaly accused the Russian soldiers of a lack of compassion.

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“They think they are in power because they have a rifle and you don’t,” he said.

Russian authorities searched his phone and deleted rocket shrapnel photos he had taken in Mariupol.

“I don’t think they liked it,” he said.

As Vitaly crossed into Estonia from the Russian border town of Ivangorod, he says he was questioned again about the war, the government and whether he had any acquaintances or relatives in the Ukrainian army.

While Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify Dmitry and Vitaly’s claims, several other Ukrainians who have spoken publicly about their experiences in the leak camps have made similar allegations.

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Ukrainian and international human rights groups are calling for independent investigations into the sites, but Savva said Russia has so far denied inspectors access. She called on the international community to support Ukrainian law enforcement and conduct investigations.

Meanwhile, human rights groups continue to urge Russia to stop abusing Ukrainians in these camps.

“The International Criminal Court Prosecutor and other relevant authorities must investigate these abominable crimes, including those committed against victims of risk groups,” Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said last month.

“All those responsible for the deportation and forcible transfer, as well as the torture and other crimes under international law committed during the leak must face justice.”

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