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Claims of mass deportations in Ukraine evoke painful history

Russia has cited “evacuations” of more than 380,000 people to its territory. 
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The reports have filtered out for days: Mass kidnappings, forced deportations, Ukrainians spirited across the border to Russia.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said Thursday that 6,000 residents of the besieged city of Mariupol had been “forcibly deported” by Russian forces — stripped of their passports and identity documents — and taken to Russia as “hostages.”

Like much in this war, the claims have been impossible to independently verify. A statement from the foreign ministry Thursday echoed allegations and details released by Mariupol’s city council in recent days, stating that “several thousand” of its residents had been taken to “filtration camps” in Russia before being “redirected to remote cities.”

Russia, in turn, has cited the “evacuations” of more than 380,000 people from Ukraine to its territory. 

Communications are sporadic or down, and no foreign journalists are left in the city. That’s meant relying on the rare videos that have emerged from the city — and on the testimony of those who’ve managed to escape. 

Yet the language — “filtration camps” — and the imagery of mass deportations are particularly resonant, evoking a dark chapter in Russian history.

The trauma and memory of mass deportations inflicted by the then-Soviet Union are still fresh. An estimated 3 million people on the USSR’s borders were rounded up and forcibly deported to remote parts of Siberia and Central Asia between 1936 and 1952, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Some 60,000 were Poles and Ukrainians.

The echoes of history — and their power — have not been lost on Mariupol's city council. 

“What the occupiers are doing today is familiar to the older generation, who saw the horrific events of World War II, when the Nazis forcibly captured people,” it said in a statement March 19. “It is hard to imagine that in the 21st century people will be forcibly deported to another country.” 

Some escapees from Mariupol have described Russian soldiers encouraging them to go to Russia “for their own safety.” Others have spoken of friends being interrogated by Russian forces, then disappearing.

Service members of pro-Russian troops are seen atop of an armoured vehicle
Russians troops are seen Thursday. Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

With verifiable information limited and access to Mariupol impossible, the claims could be true. They also could be enhanced by the fog of war — or elements of a parallel information war, in which messaging is key to enforcing each side's narrative.

Regardless, the reports have caught the attention of Ukraine’s supporters, humanitarians and even the White House. Department of State spokesman Ned Price said the United States was trying to corroborate the “very concerning” accounts, “which have in fact continued to mount.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that his government was trying to verify the exact number of citizens who had been forcibly deported, alleging that Russia was trying to forcibly conscript many into its army. That followed a March 22 statement from Ukraine’s defense minister stating that Russia was forcing men in occupied territories of Ukraine to conscript as “cannon fodder.”

On Thursday, Ukraine's human rights ombudsman said prosecutors were investigating the “illegal deportation” of more than 2,000 children to Russia. 

She said Ukrainians have been taken to different cities across Russia, citing the case of a family from the left bank of Mariupol who were taken out of a bomb shelter, loaded onto buses and taken to the Russian city of Taganrog. After being interrogated by Russian intelligence, she said, they were put on another train.

“They last got in touch with us on March 20,” she added.