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Bribes Of Cash, Cigarettes Pave Escape For Ukrainians Under Russian Occupation

A resident of Mariupol walks past tanks used by pro-Russian separatist forces in May.

Tamara fled her hometown of Mariupol on February 24, the very first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But the former city government employee could not escape her conscience and returned just two days later to do what she could to help residents under siege.

For a month she buried the dead and delivered firewood and water to those in the strategic port city who could not fend for themselves.

"Already by March, people had begun to die from Grad rocket attacks and the cold," she told RFE/RL's Current Time under condition that her real name not be used out of concern for her family's safety. "Others died from illness -- there was no medicine available -- and some from old age."

From there she moved along with her 19-year-old daughter to safer ground, a residential area where extended family had a home with a cellar where they could shelter from intense shelling and aerial bombardments.

But by the end of the month, enemy troops had entered the area -- first the "more tattered" forces who had invaded from eastern areas of the Donetsk region controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, and then the Russians. With their arrival, Tamara and her daughter joined the several million Ukrainians who had suddenly found themselves living under occupation.

Mariupol residents travel along a road in the port city in April.
Mariupol residents travel along a road in the port city in April.

Tamara and her daughter endured threats and harassment and survived on food stolen from homes and shops by the occupying forces and handed out to civilians. And like other Ukrainians who would undergo the process of "filtration" to determine their worthiness of being on "Russian" territory or who went through the checkpoints that dotted occupied lands, she learned that payoffs would be essential to getting out alive.

'If You Have A Weapon, What Can I Do?'

After Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, was surrounded by separatist forces, intense street battles raged. Eventually the Ukrainian military was driven out aside from a few hundred troops who bunkered down in labyrinth of tunnels within the massive Azovstal steel plant on the coast of the Sea Of Azov.

After that, Tamara said, the shelling of her residential area subsided. But there was no electricity, and with no mobile-phone service or Internet, no contact with the outside world aside from the news they got from the occupiers. It took 40 minutes to reach a well where residents could get fresh water, and she and her family cooked on an open fire in the yard.

From what Tamara saw, discipline among the separatist forces was low, with drunken soldiers walking the streets and attempting get residents to provide them with alcohol in exchange for food.

Once, she said, a separatist fighter threateningly asked if he and his comrades could visit her and her daughter.

"We went for firewood and one of the the separatists asked: 'Do you live here? And we said yes," Tamara recalled, adding that the soldier then requested an invite to their home. When she declined the request, the soldier underscored the disadvantageous position she and her daughter were in.

"Do you realize that I can just come to you?" Tamara recalled the soldier asking. She was blunt in her reply: “I understand. You have a weapon and we do not. So, if you come with a weapon, what can I do?"

Luckily, she told Current Time, no one came, but by mid-April, she and her daughter had decided they needed to leave before Internet access was restored and she could be identified as a former government employee.

The 'Filtration' Process

To get out of their situation, however, she would have to pass muster during filtration, putting her at risk of detention at one of the dozens of filtration camps that had been set up around the city and the hundreds set up in occupied territory in Ukraine. Russia justified the camps as a way to weed out extremists and criminals, but rights watchdogs have described them as illegal internment camps often used to hold members of the Ukrainian military or other potential combatants, as well as innocent civilians.

Residents of Mariupol wait at a checkpoint in their damaged vehicle in May.
Residents of Mariupol wait at a checkpoint in their damaged vehicle in May.

Stanislav Miroshnychenko, a journalist and activist with the Ukrainian Media Initiative For Human Rights, said such camps are not allowed under the Geneva Conventions that established international standards for humanitarian treatment during war.

"You can't carry out internment for millions of people, take them out," Miroshnychenko told Current Time, adding that those without a certificate showing they had passed filtration risked being detained on the street. Miroshnychenko said that aside from Ukrainian soldiers, public activists, and representatives of government agencies and local governments are interred at the camp, and that "very often, people with certain tattoos -- for example, the Ukrainian coat of arms -- do not pass the 'filtering' because Russians consider Ukrainian symbols to be 'Nazi' symbols."

Once people have been interred, Miroshnychenko said, it is impossible to track what happens to them.

Some who have lived under Russian occupation have an idea.

Maria Vdovychenko, a 17-year-old musician who managed to leave Mariupol, told Current Time in late April about a conversation between two soldiers she overheard while undergoing filtration at a border checkpoint.

"What did you do with people who didn't pass the filtration?" she said one soldier asked.

"Shot 10 and stopped counting -- not interested," the other replied, according to Vdovychenko.

The road from Kherson to Crimea in May.
The road from Kherson to Crimea in May.

Vdovychenko described in detail the procedure she had to go through at a checkpoint outside Mariupol.

“They collected documents, scanned them, took fingerprints, and at the same time they checked my cell phone," she said. "There were five soldiers with weapons in the room and I was alone."

She described the situation as "very scary," and said her legs began to buckle under the stress.

One soldier said to the others, “’Don't you like her? There will be more women later. We'll find something,'" Vdovychenko recalled. She said she was then told to go to Berdyansk, a port city southwest of Mariupol that had been seized by Russian forces, and pushed out of the room.

Vdovychenko was not allowed to return to her father's home after passing the process, but he told her of his experiences when they reunited in Berdyansk.

"The questions were the worst -- and not only about the government, but about Ukraine and the whole situation: What was he doing and planning to do next? How about we cut off your ear?" Vdovychenko said. "When they realized that there was nothing to check on his phone and there was not even a SIM card, they began to ask who he was. They didn't like what my dad said. They started pushing him, hit him on the head with something heavy. What happened next, Dad doesn't remember. He came to on the street."

Money Goes A Long Way

Other Ukrainians found that bribes could improve their luck in clearing the process and gaining access either to Ukrainian-held territory or to Russia itself, from where the newly found "refugees" could attempt to travel to friendly countries in the Baltics or the South Caucasus.

"There were 10 of us, and we paid 5,000 hryvnyas (currently about $170)," said Tamara, who said she was threatened during her time at a filtration camp in Mariupol.

"People there could live for two or three weeks in a field before undergoing questioning. The person with whom we agreed took our money and passports and we were left to wait," Tamara said. Eventually she was photographed and asked how she was, to which she replied: "After living in the cellar, you can say things are better."

The stunned guard asked if she was afraid of the current situation, and she said: "No, I'm not afraid. Because when I was in the cellar, the earth fell in on me. I said goodbye to my life several times."

To her surprise her name was then added to a simple computer database, and she had been certified as filtered.

Tamara later determined that a friend had paid more than three times what she and her companions had, and told of other avenues of bribery that could help ease the process.

She said that long lines are common at filtration sites, with people arriving both on foot and by car. It usually takes a week to get clearance for those traveling by car, added, while those on foot might have to wait a month. But she said knew of one man who had traveled by car to a site in Manhush, a town just west of Mariupol where she said 6,500 people waited in line to be processed but only seven people a day were allowed to leave.

"He paid 2,500 hryvnyas ($85) and passed filtration in 10 days," Tamara said.

Tea Or Coffee -- Or Vodka?

Kostyantyn Ryzhenko, a journalist from the southern region of Kherson, told Current Time that Russian occupying forces there try to squeeze anything they can -- "from a laptop to a phone-charging cord"-- from Ukrainians on the move.

He said that humanitarian volunteers he knew usually took a carton of cigarettes or a couple bottles of vodka with them, along with tea and sugar, because they knew they could get stuck at checkpoints for half a day if they did not have something to offer.

Nadia, a resident of Melitopol -- a city located in the Zaporizhzhya region about halfway between Kherson and Mariupol -- said that bribery schemes were in effect well before Russian and separatist forces set up their network of filtration sites.

Residents leave central Kyiv on February 24.
Residents leave central Kyiv on February 24.

She said she encountered 24 checkpoints on her way to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

"Each time the Russians carefully examined our belongings. At four posts they checked mobile phones," she recalled. "Once I was personally asked if I had coffee or something sweet with me. Other passengers from the car in which I was traveling were asked about alcohol and cigarettes."

One driver's phone and sneakers were taken away, she said.

Vasyl, who spoke to Current Time using a pseudonym out of concerns for the safety of family members who remain under occupation, left Ukraine's southern Kherson region after the Russian military gained control there in early May.

For those who wanted to move inside territory controlled by Russian forces, he said, the situation at checkpoints was quite "normal." But for those who wanted to travel to territory controlled by Ukraine, the story was different.

"People were often harassed, with guards saying 'Now we will handcuff you' and so on," Vasyl said of the road northwest to the Mykolayiv region, which he said had 40 checkpoints. He heard that people could be sent back at any one of the 40, meaning they would have to repeat the process at each of the ones they had cleared. To avoid such a fate, he said, many paid the guards off.

"One gave $ 100, another $500," Vasyl said, while others paid nothing aside from a few smokes.

Vasyl himself chose a different path. He traveled from his village to Kherson, the regional capital. From there he went to the Crimean Peninsula, which has been under Russian control since it was invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014. Then he went on to Russia and eventually to the South Caucasus country of Georgia.