Ukrainians deported to Russia from besieged Mariupol dream of home

·7 min read
People gather in a courtyard outside a damaged block of flats in Mariupol

By Elizabeth Piper

KYIV (Reuters) - Mila Panchenko found herself on a station platform in southwest Russia after lack of food and water forced her to hand herself over to pro-Russian forces to escape the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

At the station in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov, she was put on a train along with around 200 other Ukrainians and told they were being transported to another part of Russia's Rostov region, which borders Ukraine.

But when the train arrived at its destination, the 53-year-old found herself in Tula province in central Russia, in the town of Suvorov, some 1,000 km (621 miles) away.

"There were a lot of police. The station was sealed off so no Russian civilians could approach us," Panchenko said, adding that there were crowds to greet them but the son of a friend from Tula - who she did not identify - was not allowed in. "We were met cheerfully, with cookies."

In addition to Panchenko, Reuters spoke to another Ukrainian woman - Natalia Bil-Maer - who escaped Mariupol last month, as well as the relatives of two other refugees.

They painted a picture of some civilians in Mariupol having no choice but to flee from the besieged city to Russia, a journey that involved repeated searches and questioning by pro-Russian forces before being transported often far from Ukraine's border.

Reuters was unable to verify their stories independently.

The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment about the independent accounts provided to Reuters by Panchenko and Bil-Maer of Ukrainians being sent to distant parts of Russia without any choice.

Moscow has denied intentionally targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Panchenko said she and the other Ukrainians on the train were taken by Russian authorities to a sanatorium in the Tula region called Krainka. She was given a room with a small fridge, a television and two single beds. Laid on a table was traditional gingerbread, sweet biscuits, water and iced tea.

The Krainka resort did not respond to a request for comment on its role in sheltering the Ukrainians.

After arriving at the sanatorium, Panchenko - the duty manager of a cistern factory before the war and a member of the local council - said she was fingerprinted, photographed and questioned in front of a prosecutor, whom Reuters was unable to identify.

Panchenko - who speaks Russian and Ukrainian - was asked whether the suppression of the Russian language in Ukraine had worsened since 2014, she said.

In that year, Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula while two breakaway regions of Ukraine -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- declared themselves people's republics with Moscow's backing.

One of Russia's justifications for what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine is to protect Russian speakers from what Moscow brands aggression from Ukrainian nationalists. Ukraine has denied this.

"I only said that I could speak Ukrainian and that I loved it ... I said I hadn't witnessed any suppression of Russian."

FORCED DEPORTATIONS

Liudmyla Denisova, Ukraine's ombudswoman for human rights, said last week that Russia had taken 134,000 people from Mariupol and that 33,000 of those were forcibly deported. Reuters was unable to determine the accuracy of those statistics.

Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said her organisation had documented at least one instance where there was "no question that it would be considered a forced transfer" - which she defined as "being forced to go to the side that has invaded your country."

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, which defined legal standards for humanitarian treatment in conflict, prohibit the mass forcible transfer of civilians during an international conflict to the territory of the occupying power, classifying it as a war crime.

Russia says it is offering humanitarian aid to those wanting to leave Mariupol. A Russian government resolution, published on March 12 on its website, listed the whereabouts of 95,909 people across Russia who had left Ukraine and the two breakaway republics.

A month later, on April 14, Russian Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev said that 138,014 civilians had been rescued by Russian forces just from Mariupol, as the fighting intensified.

Panchenko said she fled Mariupol on March 17 when Chechen troops seized the building on the left bank of the Kalmius river where she and dozens of other civilians had been sheltering in a basement.

"They said that we had to evacuate because they wanted to set up their headquarters there," Panchenko said by telephone from Brescia, in northern Italy, where she is now living, having left Russia.

With scant supplies of food and water, Panchenko said she had no choice but to get into the cars offered by the Chechen soldiers to take them to Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk.

They were transported by car and then bus to the village of Bezimenne, where police from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have set up processing facilities, Panchenko said. They were fingerprinted and questioned by separatist police.

Spokespeople for the DPR and the Chechen authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

"We were asked if we had any connection with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, if we knew anyone from the Azov Battalion," she said, referring to a Ukrainian National Guard unit that Moscow has accused of targeting Russian speakers. "We weren't on any lists, so they put us on a bus again and took us to Taganrog train station."

TRAINS SENT ACROSS RUSSIA

On March 22, Bil-Maer fled the basement of a relative's apartment block with her husband and two children - aged 6 and 7 - as the Russian assault drew closer. They had planned to go to the nearby coastal town of Berdiansk, to the west, but their route was blocked by shelling.

"We had only one way left to go because that part of town was controlled by Russian soldiers ... So they transported us and we were deported to Russia."

As they were taken through Russian-controlled territory, Bil-Maer said Ukrainians were repeatedly questioned and men were asked to strip, as Russian forces searched for combatants.

But by March 23 she found herself on Russian soil and was taken to Taganrog station.

"In Taganrog, there were a lot of nice words said to us: “We've saved you. We'll feed you”," said Bil-Maer, who saw trains headed to Tambov and Vladimir in central Russia. "It was clear that every train was going to a different place."

As soon as Bil-Maer could use her phone, she called an aunt in Russia's Krasnodar region, across the Sea of Azov from east Ukraine, and she came to pick up the family.

But, once in her aunt’s home, Bil-Maer said she was reluctant to go outside because she was tired of being told by strangers that the Russian bombing was Ukraine's fault for attacking Russian-speakers. She said many Russians echoed the Kremlin’s position - reproduced in the media - that civilian casualties in the conflict were caused by Ukraine’s own armed forces to discredit Moscow.

Bil-Maer quickly fled to Georgia with her husband and children.

She does not know how she will return home: she is struggling to get help from the Ukrainian embassy and only has her internal passport with her. Her husband also left the country with her illegally when it was banned because he was of fighting age.

Ukraine foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Ukraine had to close its diplomatic missions in Russia for security reasons but embassies in the neighboring countries would provide consular assistance to Ukrainians deported to Russia to enable them to return home, including temporary travel documents.

After 10 days at the Krainka resort, Panchenko said she persuaded the Russians to allow her to leave for Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the Volga river east of Moscow, to stay with the family of an elderly neighbor from Mariupol who had fled with her.

Once outside the resort, Panchenko and her neighbor, who she identified as Zhan, went instead to Moscow and then to the Baltic States. Panchenko found her way eventually to Italy.

"But my plan is to make some money and return to my home Mariupol, if it stays Ukrainian," she said. "I want to come back to Ukraine very much."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Daniel Flynn)

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