The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s arrest over his regime’s forcible deporting of Ukrainians—especially children—to Russia. His troops have long been separating families and detaining anyone in the occupied territories suspected of pro-Ukrainian sentiments.
In early November, Russia forced the evacuation of residents from at least six municipal regions of Kherson Oblast totaling thousands of Ukrainian citizens. Those children who remain in occupied territories are forced to learn from Russian textbooks and are subjected to Russian military training.
A report by Yale University researchers published Feb. 14 reveals that the Russian government is operating a systematic network of at least 43 custody centers for the re-education and adoption of at least 6,000 Ukrainian children across Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia.
This, along with other crimes against humanity in occupied Ukraine at the hands of Russian soldiers and security officials meets the standard for genocide against the Ukrainian people, as defined by the United Nations.
Russia is, unfortunately, drawing upon a well-worn playbook. Over and over, Russia and its Soviet and Tsarist forerunners have used ethnic cleansing and genocide to achieve their aims. Examples include the Circassian genocide of the 19th century, the 1931-33 Holodomor in Ukraine, and the more recent ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia in 2008.
Now it is Ukraine’s turn again, with the Russians using detention and filtration camps that raise echoes of past Russian atrocities. Conflict Observatory has identified at least 21 filtration camps in the Donbas alone. There are many chilling firsthand accounts of the examinations, interrogations, and torture that take place there.
On Nov. 21, Beth Van Schaack, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, said that “filtration camps are a main systematic tool used by Russia for deporting Ukrainians to Russia and for committing war crimes.”
“Russia’s breaches of international law include the construction of a vast transnational infrastructure of filtration operations to which thousands of Ukrainian citizens have now been subjected,” Van Shaack said. “There are compelling reports describing physical and psychological abuse, including summary executions, as part of these operations…”
Natasha (we will not disclose her real name for safety reasons), shook as she described going through “filtration” as she escaped from the rubble of Mariupol. Speaking in Kyiv, Natasha told me what she and her family members suffered after making it out of the devastated city and into territory held by the Russians.
After several days of walking, dodging soldiers and landmines, they arrived at the only thing standing between them and unoccupied Ukraine: a filtration camp.
Despite the word “camp,” it was worse than a prison.
Her family was divided by gender, and each member was sent to the initial filtration process.
“You come to the first tent with your belongings… and you get undressed to the bone,” Natasha said. While one person was looking through her stuff, Natasha, standing naked, was interrogated by another person regarding the purpose of her trip to unoccupied Ukraine.
After an initial examination of their identity and documents, Natasha and her family went through an interrogation that would determine their fate. The questions had one purpose and Natasha’s family knew it very well—to identify whether they were Ukrainian, and if so, to punish them for it. The punishment was unknown—it could be anything from being sent back to clean up life-threatening rubble in Mariupol, to being tortured, to death.
Many Ukrainians have gone through this traumatic “filtration” process multiple times, withstanding interrogation for hours while security officers threaten imprisonment and torture.
Natasha told story after story about the humiliation her family went through under Russian occupation. Once she waited for an entire day to go to the bathroom. Another time, one Russian soldier mockingly demanded her family bow in front of him, hands in their pockets, imitating a “curtsy” gesture.
If the Russians found valuables, they stole or broke them. As they looted, they also searched for any signs of Ukrainian patriotism.
“If they found any proof, you weren’t getting out,” Natasha said.
The stories of Natasha and her family were similar to the 88 stories documented by Amnesty International of people who went through the “abusive screening process” of filtration. Although those interviewed were not beaten or electroshocked, they too were denied food, water, and access to a toilets. They were kept in extremely overcrowded conditions; were robbed; and coerced not to go to unoccupied Ukraine.
This filtration process, also called “denazification” by Russia, serves the Kremlin in several ways.
First, the practice helps Russia to subjugate the territory it occupies and to “Russify” the population by extinguishing Ukrainian language and identity.
Second, the industrial scale system of detention, deportation, threats of torture, and killings spreads terror and represses dissent.
Third, the “filtration” camp systems aid Russia in collecting intelligence on potential Ukrainian sympathizers and suspected anti-Kremlin partisans.
Ukrainians undergoing “filtration” either remain in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, are detained in prisons in eastern Ukraine or Russia, or are forcibly deported to Russia, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
Russia’s deportations and imprisonment of Ukrainians also creates a pool of hostages to use as leverage in future negotiations and for prisoner swaps.
More than 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens have been deported to Russia according to recent Ukrainian reports. Such deportations can be expected to continue as long as Russia’s occupation does.
The first wave of deportations was in spring 2022, and they have continued, according to Alena Lunova, advocacy director at the Kyiv-based ZMINA human rights organization.
“No one knows how many Ukrainians have been deported to the Russian Federation,” Lunova said, adding that it is very difficult to track such information. Nevertheless, her organization is able to get an idea of trends based on phone calls they receive from family members and friends.
“Right now, we have the picture of this new wave of deportation from the south. Russians are deporting those with disabilities, children,” Lunova told me back in November. “Just five minutes before you called, I received a message that a woman—who can’t hear or see—has been deported.”
Though it is difficult to get accurate data on how many children have been deported, ZMINA has been grouping reports into two categories—children who have been deported with family members, and children who are deported alone.
“We have received information about thousands of children being put in camps in Crimea, Krasnodar, Voronezh, and Rostov na Donu,” Lunova said.
So, what can the West do in the face of these atrocities?
The most obvious solution is to provide support needed to expel Russia from all Ukrainian territory. Simply put, no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, no genocide.
Better data on who is being deported is also needed, along with where they are being sent, and how they are being treated. Techniques perfected by online intelligence organizations such as Bellingcat, along with the power of crowdsourced collection and data analysis, are well suited for this problem.
Third, the message that “we see what you’re doing and will hold you accountable” must be made clear. Publicly identifying specific perpetrators—organizations and individuals—will reinforce that message.
Fourth, more support is needed to assist Ukraine’s own efforts to track victims, facilitate repatriation, and provide for the physical and mental health of returnees. For example, to counter Russia’s “filtration” process, the Ukrainian side could establish centers that immediately provide psychological, medical and economic assistance, including clothing, food, and temporary housing for Ukrainians who have been let go by Russians.
Finally, Ukrainians in Russia need a way out. Mechanisms should be developed to assist escapees—a modern underground railroad to help Ukrainians find refuge in neighboring countries.
Ukraine is winning on the battlefield with aid and support from its friends, and expelling Russia from occupied territory is the surest path to ending the horror. We cannot stand by passively as a genocide unfolds in the 21st century.
Ilya Timtchenko is a candidate for a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he is a Belfer Young Leaders Student Fellow. Before studying at Harvard, Ilya was a journalist based in Kyiv from 2014 to 2021.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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