As evacuees from Mariupol and other occupied Ukrainian cities make their way through Russia to third countries, they are beginning to tell stories of their harrowing journeys and of mixed treatment at the hands of Russian authorities.
Vlad Shorohov, 25, is a former Mariupol resident. A former reporter and restaurant manager, he was able to escape the artillery-ravaged city by evacuating through Russia to Finland, where he is currently working in construction.
Shorohov left Mariupol on March 20 with his mother, grandmother, a niece, and other family members and neighbors after spending three weeks in the icy basement of a high-rise building not far from the Azovstal steelworks. At the time they were without food, water or electricity.
The nine people in Shorohov's group left their shelter after a night of heavy shelling by Russian forces. He recalled learning about an evacuation organized by the Russians from a passerby. They made their way to the meeting place, where the Russian military instructed them to walk single file to a checkpoint seven kilometers away.
"We stayed there in the open and under fire for nine hours. No one controlled the queue,” he told VOA. “They looked at the passports and said: ‘Here is your bus; it will take you to Novoazovsk,’ ” a town in the occupied territory of the Donetsk oblast just inside the border with Russia.
The group, unlike some others, was allowed to remain together en route to the village of Oleksandrivske, where the members settled in a school building. From there, they proceeded to the village of Siedovo to join relatives but were stopped at a checkpoint and told to return to Oleksandrivske to wait for their so-called “filtration” procedure.
Denis Kochubey, a speaker of the Mariupol City Council, told VOA that the council has received numerous reports of people going through filtration in the occupied territory of Ukraine and at the Russian border. He said some Ukrainians have been singled out for "deep filtration" — a process that involves lengthy questioning and often beatings. The procedure is used primarily against men, especially those that had served in the armed forces.
"If a person even has a tattoo, some Ukrainian symbols, even a yellow-blue T-shirt, some literature in the Ukrainian language, carelessly said the word in Ukrainian, this may be a reason to filter hard," said Kochubey.
In the case of Shorohov's group, one man was pulled aside at the checkpoint outside Siedovo, where he was questioned for two hours and robbed of more than half his cash. But rather than return to Oleksandrivske, they then made their way to the Russian frontier where they told the border guards they had already been filtered and were allowed through.
Their time in Russia was less eventful. They arrived in the southern city of Taganrog, spent a night at a friend's place, and then traveled by train and taxi to the border with Finland. Shorohov was subjected to heavy questioning at the Russian side of the border crossing, which included checking his phone data and lasted for over six hours. Still, he was allowed to leave.
Another Mariupol resident, Kateryna Vovk, who left the city a day before Shorohov with her husband and a 3-year-old child, told a similar story. Their food was running out; they had no clean water and couldn't find safe passage out of the city. They learned about the Russian evacuation from a neighbor and arrived at the village of Nikolske, which was occupied by Russian forces. There, the family spent a night at a school gym sleeping in chairs. There was little food. The next day, eight buses arrived.
"The drivers were Russian military. About 600 to 800 people tried to leave. Naturally, everyone would not fit in, and a stampede began. The drivers said that they wouldn't take the men. Almost on my knees, I persuaded the military to take all of us on the bus," Vovk told VOA.
They, too, were taken to Taganrog, the city with the biggest camp for Ukrainians. After filtering – which in their case was limited to questioning – the family was sent to a large school gymnasium so packed with people that Vovk says she had a panic attack.
The family left Taganrog as soon as possible, taking the first train, and arrived after about 24 hours in the Vladimir Oblast, east of Moscow. There, they were taken to a hotel in the city of Kovrov by local volunteers who, she recalled, were friendly, respectful and well-organized.
"Then came people from the investigative committee who took our testimonies. They said that we would be the injured party in a war crime on the part of Ukraine," she said.
Vovk recalled that volunteers also helped them leave Russia. Just as in Shorohov's case, her family found it harder to leave Russia than enter, but in the end they were allowed to cross into Estonia.
"At the border, the Russian customs officers behaved terribly. They questioned men in a separate room for four hours, checked their phones, read their correspondence, stripped them down to their underpants, examined their tattoos," she said.
In March, Ukraine closed its embassy and consulates in Russia. At the same time, more than a million Ukrainian citizens crossed the border with Russia, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The UNHCR lists more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia on its regularly updated portal.
A UNHCR spokesperson explained to VOA that the organization doesn't distinguish between Ukrainians who came to Russia willingly or otherwise. "We are aware of reports of forced deportations, but we do not have the means to verify such reports," she said.
Russian media say more than 2.1 million people have arrived in Russia from Ukraine, including temporarily occupied territories. Russian authorities characterize them as refugees and say they have been provided with material assistance valued at about $72 million.
Ukrainian authorities consider those people deported or forcibly removed. Iryna Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister for reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, told Ukrainian media that 1.2 million Ukrainians, including 240,000 children, have been forcibly deported to Russia since the beginning of the war.
Since February 24, Russian forces have disrupted half of the humanitarian corridors organized by Ukrainian authorities, she said at a briefing.
Many find it hard to leave Russia because they lack documents and money or are moved to remote parts of the country, said Oleksandra Matviychuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and a head of the Center for Civil Liberties.
"In one case, a family was taken to Vladivostok. The wife was pregnant, and the husband had no documents. They didn't want their child to be born in Russia and receive Russian documents," she told VOA.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has an office in Moscow that, they said in an email to VOA, "is supporting the work of the Russian Red Cross, including a program to provide cash assistance to people who had to leave their homes as a result of the conflict."
But many Ukrainians had to flee their homes on short notice without their documents. For them, replacing the missing documents might be the most challenging task, said Matviychuk and the Russian volunteers who spoke to VOA.
According to a volunteer in St. Petersburg, whom VOA is not naming for security reasons, Russian volunteer organizations provide cash and practical assistance to Ukrainian citizens seeking to leave the country, including paying for an overnight stay and train or bus tickets.
"It is not difficult to leave [Russia] if you have documents,” she said. “But it is impossible to leave with the copies of documents” or with electronic documentation, which is common in Ukraine. It becomes even more challenging for families with newborns, who might have no documents at all, she explained.
In these and similar cases, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommends contacting Ukrainian embassies in nearby countries or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Consular Services hotline for assistance.
"When there is nothing at all, the territory is captured, and there is no access to their documents and various systems, it also imposes difficulties in helping these people," said Oleg Nikolenko, an MFA spokesman.
He said the Ukrainian government is doing what it can to help. Also, Kyiv is hoping for international assistance.
"The possibility of involving a third country, which could, for example, help with consular services, is being considered," he said.
Nikolenko said that since the beginning of the full-scale war, several hundred Ukrainian citizens have contacted Ukrainian consulates asking for help.
Not all Ukrainians want to leave Russia, according to Matviychuk, volunteers and Ukrainian authorities. Out of nine people in Shorohov's group, four stayed behind in Russia. Some Ukrainians join their relatives in Russia, finding employment and reasonable accommodation. Others, said Matviychuk, are not going anywhere because of the emotional trauma they experienced.
"They were in bomb shelters for several weeks under Russian bombarding, without food, water or electricity. They lost their relatives or loved ones. They found themselves in an aggressor country, not knowing what they must do. I'm afraid many people have no internal will to struggle and escape these circumstances," said Matviychuk.
Some information for this report came from Ukrainian TSN and the Russian Tass agency.