AP spoke to dozens of Ukrainian refugees sent to Russia; many have no real choice and are victims of human rights abuse.

The idea for this deeply reported story emerged months ago when AP noticed Ukrainian refugees being sent to Russia — then disappearing. But with some 2 million Ukrainians thought to have ended up in Russia, AP journalists needed to interview dozens of people to get any kind of accurate picture.

The process of tracking down refugees was painstaking. A breakthrough came when investigative correspondent Lori Hinnant and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko interviewed displaced Ukrainians who had ended up on a ferry in Estonia. And resourceful staffers in Russia managed to find people still in the country, a real coup.

In all, AP spoke with 36 Ukrainians, most of them from the devastated city of Mariupol, all of whom were sent to Russia, including 11 still there and others now in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ireland, Germany and Norway. The AP also drew on interviews with the Russian underground, video footage, Russian legal documents and Russian state media.

Conveying the diverse experiences of 36 people presented a challenge, but the team found common threads among their individual journeys. The balance between personal stories and the larger findings was masterful, humanizing the refugee situation throughout the mainbar story. Correspondent Cara Anna worked on finding both a man tricked into boarding a bus to Russia and his sister. Video producer Sophiko Megrelidze and colleagues in Georgia interviewed the man; his disturbing experience leads the piece. Investigative reporter Sarah El Deeb also contributed to the interviews and tracked where people were sent in Russia.

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Ivan Zavrazhnov stands near a ferry where he is now living in Tallinn, Estonia. A producer for a pro-Ukrainian television network in Mariupol, he made it through a Russian-controlled filtration point only because officials never bothered to plug in his dead cell phone. He escaped to Belarus, then Poland, then Estonia, leaving Russia behind with great relief. Zavrazhnov described the terror of being in Russia and not knowing where he would wind up: “This is some kind of incomprehensible lottery — who decides where and what,” he said. “You understand that you are going, as it were, into the mouth of a bear ... an aggressor state, and you end up on this territory. ... I did not have the feeling that I was safe in Russia.”

AP Photo / Vasilisa Stepanenko

The investigation found that Ukrainians are indeed forced to embark on a surreal trip into Russia, subjected along the way to human rights abuses, processed 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.

Illustrating the stories required a major team effort, with photographers in Estonia, Russia and Georgia and video journalists in the region contributing to the story which was packaged by Dario Lopez and Raghu Vadarevu.

The story also broke ground in tracing an aspect of the journeys that has hardly been reported: The chain of volunteers, including many Russians, who are helping Ukrainians escape. Two volunteers in Russia spoke with AP, despite the dangers. And almost all the Ukrainians who have left Russia described Russians who helped them along the way, demonstrating a strong vein of dissent in the country.

The Daily Beast wrote a story on the investigation, and the AP was widely cited by journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post and other media organizations on Twitter. The piece led AP for reader engagement on the day it published and was still near the top a week later.

For teamwork across borders that resulted in the most extensive and revealing investigation yet into the forcible transfers of Ukrainian refugees, Hinnant, Stepanenko, Anna, El Deeb and colleagues in Russia and Georgia earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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