- Toby Luckhurst and Olga Pona
- BBC News, Lviv
“You can’t imagine how horrible the conditions were.”
Oleksandr and Olena are two of the few civilians who have recently managed to escape Mariupol, which is now almost under full Russian control after weeks of bombing.
The city is effectively isolated from the world, and information about what is happening inside is difficult to independently confirm.
But the two, and other citizens, gave chilling accounts of life in Russia’s so-called “triage camps”, set up on the outskirts of Mariupol to house civilians before they were evacuated.
Oleksandr and Olena, speaking from the relatively safe western city of Lviv, say they ended up in one of the centers when they tried to escape the city.
After walking from their home to an evacuation point, they were taken to a Russian refugee center in a former school in the village of Nikolske, northwest of Mariupol.
“It was like a real concentration camp,” says Oleksandr, 49. The centers have been compared by Ukrainian officials to those used during Russia’s war in Chechnya, when thousands of Chechens were brutally interrogated and many disappeared.
Oleksandr and Olena were fingerprinted, photographed from all sides and interrogated for several hours by Russian security officers. “Like in a prison,” he says.
They feared the Russians would look at their phones, so they wiped all evidence from their devices of anything Ukraine-related — including photos of their daughter in front of a Ukrainian flag.
They were right to be concerned. Oleksandr says that during interrogation, Russian security officials scanned photographs, phone call history and contact numbers on their devices for links to journalists or government and military officials.
“If a person was suspected of being a ‘Ukrainian Nazi’, they would take him to Donetsk for investigation or murder,” says Oleksandr, although the BBC was unable to verify this claim.
“It was very dangerous and risky. Any doubt, any resistance – and they can take you down to the cellars for interrogation and torture. Everyone was afraid of being taken to Donetsk.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that one of the goals of his invasion is to cleanse Ukraine of the Nazis, and Russian propaganda has made numerous baseless claims that Ukraine is somehow aligned with Nazism.
Eventually, the pair were detained and placed on an evacuation list. But the ordeal did not stop there.
Seniors slept in hallways without mattresses or blankets, says Olena. There was only one toilet and one sink for thousands of people. Dysentery soon began to spread. “There was no way to wash or clean it,” she says. “The smell was extremely horrible.”
Soap and disinfectant ran out the second day they were there. Soon, too, toilet paper and sanitary pads.
Olena and Oleksandr were told they were allowed to leave on the 148th evacuation bus. But a week later, only 20 buses left the facility.
On the other hand, there were many buses organized to go to Russian territory. Authorities even tried to force the couple onto a bus heading east, they say. In the end, Olena and Oleksandr felt compelled to seek help from private drivers, who they feared might be Russians or collaborators.
“We had no choice – to be forcibly deported to Russia or take our chances with these private drivers,” says Olena.
It’s a dilemma that Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko recognizes. “Many civilian buses go to Russian, not Ukrainian, territory,” he told the BBC by telephone. “Since the beginning of the war, [os russos] did not allow any way to evacuate civilians. It is a direct military order to kill civilians,” he said.
Oleksandr and Olena’s driver managed to get them from their triage camp to the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk – via “camps, dirt roads, narrow paths behind all the checkpoints,” says Olena, because they they did not have the proper documents to pass a Russian inspection.
They then spent three days looking for a route before finding another driver who was willing to risk everything to get them into Ukrainian-held territory. He managed to bypass 12 Russian checkpoints and deliver them safely to Zaporizhzhia. The couple then took an overnight train to Lviv.
“You can only escape the sorting camps by using these risky local private drivers,” says Oleksandr. “Fortunately, there are good people among them.”
Camps as ‘ghettos’
Arriving in Lviv the same day were Valentyna and her husband Evgeniy. They also managed to flee Mariupol last week. The couple were boarding a bus to a smaller town in western Ukraine – desperate for safety after their ordeal.
The situation in Mariupol, they said, had become dire. Those who stayed survived by taking shelter in a basement, living on preserves, a handful of potatoes they grew in their garden, and water taken from the boiler.
The screening process was quick for them, says Valentyna, 58, perhaps because of her age and because Evgeniy has a disability. But it was much worse for the younger ones, she said.
“Triage camps are like ghettos,” she says. “The Russians divide people into groups. Those who were suspected of having links to the Ukrainian army, territorial defense, journalists, government officials, were most at risk. They take these people to prisons in Donetsk, torture them.”
She and Evgeniy also say that many were sent from the triage camps to Russia. Sometimes people were told they were destined for Ukrainian-controlled territory, they claim, and then taken to Russian-controlled territory.
Like Oleksandr and Olena, Valentyna says it was only because of the driver that they managed to escape.
“When we finally (we escaped) and saw the Ukrainian fighters and the flag, when we heard the Ukrainian language, everyone on the bus started crying,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable that we are still alive and finally escaped from hell.”
Both couples have now escaped from Mariupol, a city that has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance and suffering after the Russian invasion. Now they face an uncertain future – just four of the 11 million Ukrainians displaced by the conflict.
“The city no longer exists,” says Valentyna. “Even walls. Now it’s just huge piles of ruins. I could never have imagined such violence.”
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