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Civilians who aren’t suspected of any specific crimes have been held for days or weeks while authorities check their backgrounds and credentials in Ukraine’s Donetsk region

Photography by Anton Skyba

Vitalii Donchevskyi and his wife, Valentyna Churikova, were at home sharing a meal when Russian soldiers burst through the front door. They were rounding up men and forcing them to undergo a process known as filtration.

It was the middle of April. The couple was sheltering at Ms. Churikova’s parents’ house on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, one of the first places to become a battleground after the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Donchevskyi and Ms. Churikova had heard that the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which declares sovereignty over Ukraine’s Donetsk region, was working alongside Russian troops to search the city home by home.

The soldiers wrote down Mr. Donchevskyi and Ms. Churikova’s names. Then they told Mr. Donchevskyi to pack his things.

“I didn’t know what would come next,” he said in a recent interview. “I heard people had been taken for a day, or two days, maximum 10 days, but no one knew.”

Filtration, a process where civilians who aren’t suspected of any specific crimes are held in DPR or Russian facilities for days or weeks while authorities check their backgrounds and credentials, has become a fact of life for residents of Donetsk’s Russian and DPR-held territories in the months since the start of the invasion. In many cases it’s a necessary step before they are allowed to leave their communities, or move freely within them.

Ukrainians who don’t arouse suspicion during filtration are held briefly before being issued receipts – identity documents that allow them to move through their communities without being filtered again. But people suspected of having ties to the military or police are detained.

Mr. Donchevskyi was a police officer until the war began. He knew the soldiers were searching for people with connections to Ukraine’s law enforcement or military. Over the next few weeks he would be shuffled from one detention centre to the next, interrogated and sometimes severely beaten. He would eventually be released, enabling him to flee the area with Ms. Churikova and other family members.

A receipt from Bezymenne filtration camp, near Mariupol.

Human-rights groups say the way filtration is being practised in Ukraine is abusive and could be in violation of international standards. Even in cases where Ukrainians swept up in the dragnet aren’t captured or beaten, there is evidence that some of them are being taken to Russia against their will.

The Globe spoke with 12 Ukrainians who said they had undergone filtration. Many said they were interrogated about whether they were connected to anyone in the Ukrainian army or law enforcement, fingerprinted and photographed. Their phones and belongings were searched, and some said they were forced to strip to their underwear so authorities could inspect their tattoos or examine their bodies for evidence that they frequently carried rifles. Some, like Mr. Donchevskyi, were blindfolded and repeatedly beaten.

Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said some people living in Mariupol during the hostilities have had no choice but to pass through Russian and Russian-backed filtration camps. She estimated that thousands of Ukrainians have been subjected to the process.

“Many people literally have no choice at all except to follow those orders, or stay and die. And that could constitute forcible transfer, which is a violation of the laws of war,” she said.

Those who don’t clear filtration often end up in prison, she said. She added that there are strong grounds for concern that some of those detainees are being subjected to torture and other forms of ill treatment.

And although some Ukrainians have gone to Russia willingly, she said, others have been taken there unwillingly after begging soldiers to let them travel to safer areas of Ukraine.

Canada’s Global Affairs department has called on Russia to put a stop to filtration. “Russia must release those detained and allow Ukrainian citizens to safely return home,” it said an e-mailed statement to The Globe.

Earlier this month, the United States also demanded a stop to the practice. “We call on Russia to provide outside independent observers access to so-called ‘filtration’ facilities, and to forced deportation relocation areas in Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a public statement. He cited estimates that Moscow has forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, many of them children, to Russia.

In response, Russia’s embassy to the United States released a statement on social media, saying the accusation is an attempt by Washington to vilify the armed forces of the Russian Federation and is “apparently connected with dissatisfaction with the success of a special military operation.”


Mr. Donchevskyi shows a paper he received after spending 30 days in a facility used to detain prisoners of war.

After Mr. Donchevskyi was led away from his home, he was taken to an empty house in the village, which Russian and DPR soldiers were using as their headquarters.

On the street in front of the house, the troops assembled him and a group of men and ordered them to strip off their winter clothes, down to their underwear. Anyone walking on the street would have seen what was going on, he said.

The soldiers checked over the men’s bodies for signs that they often carried guns or backpacks. They inspected tattoos. Just before sunset, all the men were made to board a bus, which took them to nearby Sartana village. There, the group of men was divided. Civilians were taken to the Bezimenne filtration camp, and the rest, Mr. Donchevskyi among them, were kept in a room in a café.

Not long after, a car of DPR officers pulled up. The vehicle carried him and three others to the Novoazovsk detention facility, a prison located to Mariupol’s east. His belongings were taken and he was held in a cell for two days. This, it turned out, was the easy part.

DPR officers arrived, covered his head with a hood and tied his hands behind his back. They forced him into the back of a truck with 10 others and beat them. “They were beating us deliberately with the stocks of guns,” Mr. Donchevskyi said. “They beat me on my kidneys, on my ribs … if someone moved, they were beaten. And they were doing this intentionally, to show their power.”

Because of the hood over his head, he couldn’t see a thing as he felt the blows to his body. His knees were pulled close to his chest and he couldn’t breathe. The officers screamed at the men and said they were going to drag them to the forest and kill them.

Mr. Donchevskyi and the other men were taken to a police station in Donetsk and ordered out of the truck. He couldn’t feel his legs or hands. “They dropped me on the ground and I couldn’t get up,” he said.

He was brought to a room. With his head still shrouded, he couldn’t see what was happening, but he could sense the presence of other people. Police from the DPR’s organized crime unit started teasing and humiliating the men.

One of the officers asked Mr. Donchevskyi about his tattoo, a drawing of several trees. Mr. Donchevskyi explained that it was a forest image, and that he loves nature. The officer asked how many trees made up the tattoo’s design.

“I said ‘seven trees,’ and he kicked me seven times on my legs,” Mr. Donchevskyi said. “And when I fell to my knees, he said, ‘And now you have to tell me thank you that I haven’t started to count the branches.’”

Mr. Donchevskyi's tattoo.

The men’s heads were uncovered and they were moved to a room where they stood for hours as they were interrogated again. They were photographed and shoved into a small cell with more than 20 others. Mr. Donchevskyi was finally arrested on April 17 for “participating in a terrorist group,” and transported to Olenivka prison, which is used to detain prisoners of war. There, he and other detainees were forced to strip naked, stand against a wall and spread their legs as a female doctor inspected them.

Mr. Donchevskyi spent the next month being moved between crowded cells. All the while, the DPR anthem and Russian news played constantly in the background. It was hot inside the facility, and prisoners were served porridge with rotten fish. Soldiers told them about how beautiful life is in the DPR.

Even after all of this, many of the people who suffered alongside Mr. Donchevskyi told him they were considering staying and serving in the DPR police. As his scheduled release date approached, he told prison authorities that he would also serve, hoping to allay their suspicions about him. But his plan was to pack and disappear.

After he was released, Mr. Donchevskyi quickly connected with his wife, mother and brother. The three of them found volunteers in different countries to take them – and their cat – to safety. The route was a winding one through Russia, Belarus and Poland. From there, they were able to travel to a part of Ukraine that isn’t controlled by Moscow.

Mr. Donchevskyi said he doesn’t want anyone else to go through what he did. He added that it’s important to remember that there are still men in separatist-held and Russian prisons who need to be freed.

Anna Vorosheva.

Anna Vorosheva, a 46-year-old florist and party shop owner, found herself in a similar situation after DPR forces took her into custody at a road checkpoint. She was returning to Mariupol after having helped a few women from the city escape to Zaporizhzhia, to the west.

When soldiers brought her to a police station in Mangush, she learned that civilians were being made to go through a filtration process. She was fingerprinted, then transferred to another facility and thrown in a crowded cell.

Eventually she was taken to the DPR police force’s organized crime department. Under interrogation by a senior investigator, she realized how much DPR authorities already knew about her. They had her tax number, and her work and education histories, among other details.

After interrogating her, the investigator told her she would receive her filtration receipt and be released. But then officers searched through her cellphone and appeared to find something there that gave them pause. They told her they were holding her for an administrative violation, for up to 30 days.

A female guard inspected her belongings and ordered her to strip off all her clothes. Two days later she, too, was taken to Olenivka prison, where her detainment was extended twice without explanation.

She was finally released on July 4, after 100 days in captivity, and given a release document that said prosecutors had declined to pursue a terrorism case against her.


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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Some civilians fleeing recently occupied territories have reported less traumatic experiences with filtration. Several women who spoke to The Globe said that although the procedure was relatively easy for them, it was still humiliating.

They said they were taken to filtration camps, where they stood in long lines and were then photographed and fingerprinted. Their phones were searched, and they were questioned about whether they knew anyone in the Ukrainian army or police.

Tatiana, whom The Globe is identifying only by her first name because she is fearful of repercussions if she has to return to her home in Mariupol, said she went through a filtration camp with her mother and 10-year-old daughter.

The three had been sheltering for two months with a group of other civilians in a bunker beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal steel factory. They were finally able to escape with the help of humanitarian organizations. As a condition of their evacuation, they had to undergo the DPR’s filtration process.

Men and women were separated, and tents were set up with tables and computers. After being cut off from communication with the outside world for months, Tatiana wanted to ask people about her relatives and her home, but she was only allowed to speak with those with whom she had sheltered below Azovstal.

After weeks under the steel plant, people looked older and drained. “We couldn’t even recognize ourselves in the mirror,” she said. “We were trying to look into the faces, but it’s impossible, especially when people are far away from you. The war changed faces.”

Soldiers at the filtration camp asked for details of how Tatiana and her family members ended up in Azovstal, and asked them to sign their testimony. People were crying, shocked that they had survived, she said. Initially, she felt that some soldiers were showing compassion. But that impression didn’t last.

A female soldier ordered Tatiana to dump her belongings onto a mobile bed. Everything she was carrying was for survival in the shelter. The items had seemed vital. But in that moment, she realized they were mostly garbage.

She had gloves, antiseptic, some face masks, toilet paper (which was “valued as gold in the bunker,” she said), and a few candies, which were an emergency snack for her daughter. The woman sorting through her belongings made humiliating comments, she said.

Tatiana was wearing work clothes and boots from the factory, because her own clothing had fallen apart. The soldiers thought she was wearing a tactical uniform, she said.

She, her mother and her daughter were offered three options for evacuation. They could go to Ukraine, or to Russia, or they could remain in the DPR. The soldiers told evacuees that they would not be “forcibly taken to Ukraine,” she said.

She told the soldiers she needed to go to Ukraine. She eventually left the country entirely and is now living in a refugee camp in Sweden.

Another woman, Galina, whom The Globe is identifying only by her first name because she, like Tatiana, fears repercussions if she ever returns to her home in Mariupol, said she left the city in a humanitarian convoy in May after learning about an evacuation bus from her daughter.

The 55-year-old said she was searched at a filtration camp by two women. Her interrogators asked her if there were circumstances where she would be obliged to work with the Ukrainian military. She said yes, because she is a nurse, and medical professionals are sometimes required to aid the military under Ukraine’s martial law.

She was told to undress to her underwear. “I understand they were looking for tattoos,” she said, adding that she was even told to take off her socks so her toes could be inspected.

When the process was finished at 3 a.m., soldiers directed people to different buses, she said. They didn’t seem to care about separating families.

“This filtration process is absolutely humiliating,” she said, adding that she hopes the International Criminal Court will review what is happening “because we are not criminals and no one allowed them to act in such a way against us.”

A mother and daughter from the Mariupol area – whom The Globe is not identifying because they, too, fear repercussions – said Russian soldiers were already in their village on Feb. 28, just days after the start of the invasion.

They watched Russia bombard the city of Mariupol from their house, where they were completely isolated. If humanitarian corridors had been arranged to help civilians escape, they didn’t know about them. Bridges had been destroyed. They put a sign on their house that said “we live here.”

In mid-March, soldiers came to their home and took the mother, saying she had to go to a filtration camp. The next day, they took the daughter as well. The daughter was asked if she wanted to go to Russia. She said she wanted to go home.

After filtration, the mother and daughter were allowed to return to their village. Whenever they left their home, they knew there was a good chance Russian or DPR soldiers would demand to see their passports and filtration receipts. On two occasions, soldiers came to their house and checked every room.

Eventually, they escaped through Russia to Warsaw and back to Ukraine. They are now living in Kyiv.

At a reception centre in Zaporizhzhia for Ukrainians fleeing Russian-occupied areas of the country, a few people said they had managed to pay or luck their way into a speedy filtration process, without lengthy questioning.

Antonina Shapovalova with her younger children in the transition centre for evacuees in Zaporizhzha, Ukraine.

Antonina Shapovalova said when she arrived at a filtration camp her hands were shaking. She was terrified the officers would learn about her husband, who is a member of the Ukrainian army.

But she and her children, including her 19-year-old son, who has leukemia, were able to blend in with a group of volunteers who had been rescuing pets. This allowed them to evade lengthy questioning, she said.

Oleksii Rogoyi, Ms. Shapovalova's 19-year-old son.

Ms. Shapovalova said she had heard a lot of opinions about what would happen if DPR or Russian authorities found out about her husband.

“Someone said you will be tortured, some said you will be interrogated, some said you’ll be in prison, some said you’ll be shot,” she said.

“But they took my photo on a table and a soldier said they were sad I was leaving.”

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