NARVA, Estonia — For weeks Natalya Zadoyanova had lost contact with her younger brother Dmitriy, who was trapped in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Russian forces had bombed the orphanage where he worked, and he was huddling with dozens of others in the freezing basement of a building without doors and windows. When she next heard from him, he was in tears.
“I’m alive,” he told her. “I’m in Russia.”
Zadoyanov was facing the next chapter of devastation for the people of Mariupol and other occupied cities: Forcible transfer of refugees to Russia, the nation that killed their neighbors and shelled their hometowns almost into oblivion.
Nearly 2 million Ukrainians refugees have been sent to Russia, according to both Ukrainian and Russian officials. Ukraine portrays these transfers as forced journeys to enemy soil, which is considered a war crime. Russia calls them humanitarian evacuations.
An Associated Press investigation has found that while the picture is more nuanced than the Ukrainian government suggests, many refugees are indeed forced into Russia, subjected to abuse, stripped of documents and unclear about their futures — or even locations.
It starts with a poisoned choice: Die in Ukraine or live in Russia. They are taken through a series of what are known as filtration points, where treatment ranges from interrogation and strip searches to being yanked aside and never seen again. Refugees described an old woman who died of the cold, her body swollen, and an evacuee beaten so severely that her back was covered in bruises.
Those who “pass” the filtrations are invited to stay and often promised a payment of about 10,000 rubles ($170) that they may or may not get. Sometimes their Ukrainian passports are taken away, and the chance of Russian citizenship is offered instead. And sometimes, they are pressured to sign documents incriminating the Ukrainian government and military.
Those refugees with no money or contacts in Russia — the majority, by most accounts — can only go where they are sent. The AP verified that Ukrainians have received temporary accommodation in more than two dozen Russian cities and localities.
However, the AP investigation also found signs of dissent within Russia to the government narrative that Ukrainians are being rescued from Nazis. Almost all the refugees the AP interviewed spoke gratefully about Russians who quietly helped them through a clandestine network, retrieving documents, finding shelter, buying train and bus fare, exchanging Ukrainian hryvnia for Russian rubles and even lugging the makeshift baggage that holds the remains of their pre-war lives.
The investigation is the most extensive to date on the transfers, based on interviews with 36 Ukrainian refugees mostly from Mariupol who left for Russia, including 11 still there and others in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ireland, Germany and Norway. The AP also drew on interviews with Russian underground volunteers, video footage, Russian legal documents and Russian state media.
Exhausted and hungry in the basement in Mariupol, Zadoyanov finally accepted the idea of evacuation. The buses went only to Russia.
Along the way, Russian authorities searched his phone and interrogated him. Zadoyanov was asked what it meant to be baptized, and whether he had sexual feelings toward a boy in the camp.
He and the other refugees were taken to the train station and told their destination would be Nizhny Novgorod, 800 miles from the Ukrainian border. From the train, Zadoyanov called Natalya in Poland. Her panic rose.
Get off the train, she said. Now.
The transfer of hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine is part of a deliberate, systemic strategy, as laid out in government documents.
Some Ukrainians stay in Russia because while they may be technically free to leave, they have nowhere to go, no money, no documents or no way to cross the distances in a sprawling country twice the size of the United States. Others may have family and strong ties in Russia, or prefer to start anew in a country where they at least speak the language. And some refugees fear that if they return, Ukraine will prosecute them for going to the enemy.
Lyudmila Bolbad’s family walked out of Mariupol and ended up taking the 9-day train trip to the city of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border and nearly 6,200 miles from Ukraine.
Bolbad and her husband found work in a factory. Little else has gone as they’d hoped.
They handed over their Ukrainian passports in exchange for promises of Russian citizenship, only to discover that landlords will not rent to Ukrainians without a valid identity document. The promised payments are slow to come, and they have been stranded with hundreds of others from Mariupol in a rundown hotel with barely edible food. But if she returns, Bolbad thinks Ukraine would see her as a traitor, and she plans to stay in Russia.
“We’re trying to return to a normal life somehow, to encourage ourselves to start our life from scratch,” she said.
For Ukrainians trying to escape, help often comes from an unexpected source: Russians.
On a recent day in Estonia, a Russian tattoo artist accompanied a family from Mariupol across the border to a shelter.
The tattoo artist, who asked that his name be withheld because he still lives in Russia, was the last in a chain of volunteers that stretched 1,100 miles from Taganrog and Rostov to Narva, the Estonian border town. He boards in St. Petersburg a couple of times a week, going to Finland and sometimes Estonia.
He said Russians who help know each other only through Telegram, nearly all keeping anonymous “because everyone is afraid of some kind of persecution.”
“I can’t stop it,” he said of the war and the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia. “This is what I can do.”
In May, volunteers in Penza in Russia shut down their efforts to help Ukrainian refugees because of anonymous threats. The threats included slashed tires, the Russian symbol Z painted in white on a windshield and graffiti on doors and gates calling them the likes of “Ukro-Nazi” helpers.
For Zadoyanov and many others, the lifeline out of Russia was Russians.
Zadoyanov got off the train to Nizhny Novgorod with the other Ukrainian refugees, and church contacts there gave them shelter and the first steps in finding a way out of Russia into Georgia.
“He was so emotionally damaged,” said his sister, Natalya. “Everyone was.”
Story by Lori Hinnant, Cara Anna, Vasilisa Stepanenko and Sarah Ele Deeb. Associated Press writers Anastasiia Shvets, Elizaveta Telnaya, Oleksandr Stashevskyi, Mstyslav Chernov and Sophiko Megrelidze contributed to this report.