Inside a Russian center for Ukrainian refugees

But since this safe haven is inside Russia, they are hesitant to share these stories.

Aleksey Nechipurenko, 45, was injured when Russian troops entered the southern port city of Mariupol. His foot was shot in pieces and his wife was killed in front of him, he tells CNN.

But as a Russian doctor heals his wounds, he insists that Ukraine, not Russia, is to blame for his suffering.

“The Russians were just beginning to enter the city. Therefore, they simply could not be on the side where we were, ”he told CNN.

Alexei Nechipurenko poses with a doctor at a shelter for Ukrainian refugees in Taganrog, southern Russia.

The basketball court is located in Taganrog, in southern Russia, just 100 kilometers from Mariupol, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians held out for several weeks at the Azovstal steel plant before Russia took full control of the city.

CNN has been given exclusive access to a center set up to process some of the more than 2 million refugees estimated to have poured onto Russian soil since the February 24 invasion began.

Human rights groups say Ukrainians are being “filtered” before being sent to temporary shelters in Russia, and those who are suspected of being a threat are not allowed in.

And those who passed the first test in Russia and reached Taganrog do not want to talk much.

“Now I am here [in Russia] so please don’t pressure me,” said a 30-year-old man from Mariupol, who asked not to be named and only wanted to be recorded speaking to CNN with his back to the camera.

“I didn’t see who killed my relatives,” he said. “As far as I understand, they are just victims of this conflict,” he added.

Not far from the border, Russian authorities have turned a basketball hall into a shelter for refugees from Ukraine.

Dmitry Vashchenko, a Russian Emergencies Ministry official in Taganrog, said housing would be provided to Ukrainians, who are also free to look for work and send their children to school.

“When hostilities end in the future, all these arrivals may decide to return to their homeland. Those who wish to stay in Russia, the Russian government undertakes such an obligation – they will receive a full range of social services and will be protected,” he said.

When asked about the process of admitting refugees to Russia, he said that there are “filtration points” on the border.

“They check people who show an aggressive attitude towards the Russian Federation,” he said. “Filtration occurs precisely upon arrival, there are no “mass camps”. These are border checkpoints, nothing more.”

A woman named Irina said she fled the war zone with her son Rostislav and their cat Bolik.

Opposite the gymnasium sits another refugee from Mariupol – Irina, who ran away with her nine-year-old son Rostislav and their cat Bolik. She said their city was in ruins, but didn’t want to place the blame.

“I don’t want to get involved in all this. This side is wrong and that side is wrong. Both sides are to blame. Both sides shot at us. Both of us were killed,” she said.

Another country, another story from refugees

The only safe way for Irina from Mariupol was to Russia, but she hopes to move to a third country.

Many Ukrainians made their way through Russia to Estonia, which was once part of the Soviet Union and is now an independent member of the European Union.

Aboard the giant passenger ferry Isabel offering asylum in Tallinn, refugees speak more freely and tell CNN how they managed to make their way through Russia and its filtration camp system.

Daniil, 22, who feared he would be called to fight against Ukraine, said he pretended to want to make Russia his permanent home. He said he was stripped and his tattoos checked.

“They checked to see if I was connected in any way with the Ukrainian army and if I knew anyone who served there,” said Daniil, who also used to live in Mariupol.

“They asked if I knew when Vladimir Putin’s birthday is because ‘he’s your president now’,” they said.

“I told them I didn’t know, and they reproached me for not knowing,” Daniel continued. “They said, ‘You should know this.’ I had to tell them that I hadn’t had a chance to find out yet, but assured them that I would find out. So they let me through.”

Stanislav and Vitalina, a young married couple, thought that their small town, Rubizhne, would be able to avoid the worst consequences of the war, since they did not consider it strategically important. But when the fighting for nearby Severodonetsk intensified in early May, the fighting came to their doorstep and the city was occupied.

Vitalina and Stanislav say they kept their anger in Russia.

“There was no opportunity to get to the Ukrainian side from our city. No one would dare to cross an active battlefield,” said Stanislav.

Vitalina added: “For us, the main thing was to save ourselves and our family, so, unfortunately, we had to go through Russia.”

The couple decided to pretend that they were going to visit relatives.

“We had to answer various questions about our political views, whether we support our army and why we do not support our army,” Vitalina said.

“During the interrogation, they took my phone and held it in their hands the whole time, they looked through my bank accounts, personal photos and messages. These are my personal things, and they looked at all this.

With tears in her eyes, she talks about having to hide her hatred of Russia while there. Now in Estonia, she reveals her true feelings.

“They tortured our people there. They kicked people out of their homes or simply didn’t even give us water. They told us that this was payback for eight years of their suffering, and now it’s our turn to suffer,” she said. , referring to the protracted and bloody battle in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Not only people suffered, Vitalina said.

“The Russians decided that the dogs would bark at them and give away their positions, so they decided to kill all the pets,” she said.

“We would have tied our dog and put a muzzle on it, but still they killed my dog ​​… My father ran into soldiers who killed our dog, and they opened fire in response. Dad, fortunately, managed to get behind the house in time.”

The couple’s parents are still in Russian-occupied Ukraine. Vitalina said that her father was injured and her grandfather was too weak to leave.

They want to return to them, to return home, but there is little hope for this now.

“My soul yearns to return home to my family. But I understand the realities,” said Vitalina. “Everything is destroyed, no work, no food. Everything costs five times the original price. People are not able to survive.”