Filtration in the Kherson region and Crimea: where are the Ukrainians disappearing?

Stanislav Miroshnychenko, Anastasiia Pantelieieva (Media Initiative for Human Rights)
Filtration in the Kherson region and Crimea: where are the Ukrainians disappearing?

Due to the intensification of hostilities in the Kherson region, more and more locals under occupation want to leave. Currently, residents of the Kherson region have only two options: through Vasylivka in the Zaporizhzhia region or occupied Crimea, from there to Russia, and then to a third country.

Before the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, many people chose the path through Crimea, as it was considered relatively safe. However, the situation has changed. Now the risk of detention at checkpoints before reaching Crimea and at the administrative border of the occupied autonomous republic has increased. This is related to the Russian search for saboteurs, spies, and traitors, which intensified after the explosions in Crimea.

"Svidomi", in cooperation with the Media Initiative for Human Rights, tells about what is happening in the territories of the temporarily occupied south after the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"Ukrainians are treated like garbage"

Two roads lead from the Kherson region to the peninsula — through Chonhar and Armiansk. The Russians set up filtration points right there. Maksym is telling MIHR how it happens in Chonhar since he went through the filtration with his parents a few days prior: "They check tattoos, phones, and documents on the way out. The inspection took half an hour and was carried out by Russian servicemen. The next checkpoint was already in Crimea — the same procedure.

At the third checkpoint in Crimea, there were the Russian military, the FSB, and the Kadyrov regiment soldiers. They treat Ukrainians like garbage. I have tattoos on my left and right knees — my parents' birth dates. The military asked if I knew that Nazis got the numbers tattooed on the knees during the Second World War, and I was like a Nazi."

According to Maksym, a few weeks before that, his friend and her father were leaving, and there were no filtration checkpoints. However, they were held at the Chonhar checkpoint for 8 hours. The reason is the father's tattoo from the USSR times: a hammer and sickle on his hand and another one that indicated that he was a sailor. Such symbols arouse suspicion among the Russian military, as they believe that people are getting them tattooed specifically to get through filtration.

Maksym's family headed towards Georgia, where the FSB and the Russian military were standing at the border. They demanded $200 to be let through. When the father refused, they threatened to take the car and the children away, so the money had to be paid. Then they let them go through.

"The Russian military accused me of supporting Nazis"

Most of the residents of Kherson and surrounding settlements leave through Armiansk. MIHR journalists spoke with several Ukrainians who tried to go through the checkpoint. Everyone says that the filtration in Armiansk is thorough.

Iryna, a resident of occupied Kherson, was leaving on July 15, before the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. "Our bus stood under the scorching sun for a long time at the customs office. Then the passengers went through passport control," the woman says. "All men and I were called from the bus. A woman spent a long time looking at my passport and comparing my photo with my face. I am 18 years old, and she was interested in why I was leaving without my parents. She checked my phone: contacts, SMS, photos.

I was brought into a cramped booth. The interrogation was carried out by four Russian military personnel. They started checking Viber. The message: "Orcs have come to the village" seemed suspicious to them. They started googling "orc" and asking if they looked like orcs in the photos.

Iryna says that the Russians put pressure on her trying to find out how much money she transferred to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Out of fear, she replied that she had donated just a few hryvnias. After that, the military accused her of "supporting the Nazis."

"Later, I was transferred to a longer booth, where a man was being interrogated. When they didn't like his answer, they said: "If you don't get it, we will make you when the girl leaves." I never saw this man again," Iryna recalls.

In such a manner, the Russians detained Oleksii Troian, a computer science teacher at the Dolyna village school during his departure on July 29. The man, together with his wife Svitlana and two children, was driving through the Chaplynka checkpoint. Russians were annoyed by the word "kokhanyi" ("beloved"), which Svitlana used as her husband's contact name on the phone. Troian was detained and taken to interrogation, which lasted 5 hours. All this time, Svitlana was waiting outside with the baby. From the room where Oleksii was held, she heard the distinct sounds of the body hitting the wall or the table. Eventually, the man was sent for filtration to the FSB in the border zone of Armiansk in Crimea. The next day, as UA South reports, Svitlana came there, but she was forbidden to meet her husband. The man was allowed to make a phone call. During the conversation, he said that he had not been beaten and ordered his wife to leave without him. According to the journalist Osman Pashaiev, who monitors the fate of Oleksii Troian, the Ukrainian teacher was released only a month later — on September 2. There are no details of what the Russians did to him in prison at the moment.

"They put him in front of a pit with a pile of corpses"

During the filtering in Armiansk, another resident of the Kherson region, Vladyslav (name changed for security reasons), was detained. His aunt Victoria told MIHR his story. He says that the nephew was detained during a document check — his name was on the lists of activists that the Russians are hunting. At the same time, according to her, Vladyslav has not been involved in any public activity for many years, and the Russians are most likely using outdated data. After the arrest, a bag was put on the man's head, and he was taken in an unknown direction. Later it will become known that they took him to the Skadovsk area, where the Russians had set up a prison on the territory of one of the recreation centers.

For three days, Vladyslav lay tied up and with a bag on his head. After that, they threw him into the car and drove for half an hour until they stopped. "When they took him out of the car and removed the bag from his head, he found himself in front of a large pit in which there were a bunch of corpses," said Viktoria retelling her nephew's words. "They said: "Do you want to go there?" He replied: "Of course not." Then they started firing into the air. Then they pulled a bag over his head and left him in some building again. Interrogations were not carried out."

The meeting with the FSB investigators took place on the fourth day of the detention. They recovered the man's Telegram messages. They started to intimidate him and encourage cooperation. Interrogations took place every morning, and at night, the executioner came into the cell and beat Vladyslav.

The man was released in two weeks only after he agreed to cooperate with the Russians. Currently, Vladyslav is in the occupied part of the Kherson region and does not yet dare to try to leave again.

Four Kherson torture chambers

The Russians are looking for saboteurs in Kherson. "In Kherson, there are still a lot of Anti-Terrorist Operation veterans, those who were in Ilovaisk. They are hiding. In recent days, they have been hunted very hard," says Liudmyla, who is already safe now, to MIHR. "Previously, they were not really looking for them somehow, but two weeks ago, they became more active. They came to the parents of one of the men I know, and this is the old address where he once lived. Kherson was taken in the first days, so few activists managed to leave."

According to the woman, not only activists or former soldiers are kidnapped but also their relatives. He says that this is what happened to the mother and aunt of Oleksandr Shumkov, a former political prisoner of the Kremlin and personal bodyguard of Dmytro Yarosh from the Right Sector, who spent three years in prison in Russia. They were hiding in Kherson in someone else's apartment, but they were tracked down, kidnapped, and now their fate is unknown.

Serhii Chudynovych, a priest of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine who was kidnapped by the Russians on March 30 for his openly pro-Ukrainian position, was one of the first to publicly speak about the atrocities committed by the Russians in Kherson. On the same day, Russians began to torture him: they beat him, strangled him, and gave him vodka instead of water. Chudynovych recalls that he started to say goodbye to life, but then he was asked if he would cooperate. The priest agreed. He was released, and in a few days, the man left for the territory controlled by Ukraine. It was only on April 23 that Chudynovych dared to speak publicly about what the Russians had done to him.

There are a lot of arrests on the streets of Kherson. Markets are one of the FSB's favorite places to work. Kostiantyn Ryzhenko, a well-known investigative journalist in the city, and owner of a Telegram channel about Kherson, who left the city just a few days prior, tells MIHR about how this happens: "You can be sitting and having a conversation. And this is where people in civilian clothes come in. They say, let's go talk. But there is an important detail: after these conversations, 30% of the people are released, the fate of the rest is unknown."

According to Ryzhenko, there are four main places where Russians hold and torture prisoners in Kherson. The first is the pre-trial detention center at 3 Elektroenerhetykiv Street. The second is the SBU office (1 Luteranska Street). The third is the pre-trial detention center at 10 Perekopska Street. The fourth is the building of the Main Directorate of the National Police in the Kherson Region at 4 Luteranska Street.

Ryzhenko managed to escape from the occupation as part of a special operation, which he prepared together with Ukrainian intelligence officers in advance. To do this, it was necessary not only to produce documents in someone else's name but also to create a new digital identity under them with a history in social networks.

"I traveled by bus to Ukraine at my own risk. There was a guy among us who, for some reason, constantly raised questions from Russians, although he has glasses and dreadlocks, that is, the look of a typical Rasta," Ryzhenko says. "And Russians are looking for tattoos, calluses on the shoulders. Men with a lean or athletic physique are under suspicion — not exactly like a jock, but when it is simply obvious that the person is used to physical activity. They are perplexed by tattoos of runes, kolovrats. I have a star on my ribs, so I covered it with body cream so that it wouldn't be visible."

Commenting on the situation with the norms of international humanitarian law in Kherson, Ryzhenko, for whose head the occupiers announced a reward of 200,000 rubles, replies: "I'm afraid that when Kherson is de-occupied, the picture of Russian crimes will be revealed, it will be worse than Bucha."