Inside Russia’s filtration camps
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: The i newspaper, inews.co.uk
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-03-26
Authors: Dean Kirby, Investigations Correspondent
Dean Kirby is i’s Investigations Correspondent. He has been reporting the news for 25 years. His awards include the Medical Journalists’ Association News Story of the Year for an investigation into PPE supply chain chaos in the Covid pandemic. He has been highly commended for the 2022 Hugh Cudlipp Award for Investigative Journalism and shortlisted for Scoop of the Year at the British Journalism Awards for his work on the war in Ukraine. He holds a PhD in urban history and is a volunteer mentor to journalism students.
One of the hidden stories of the war in Ukraine was the forced deportation of Ukrainians to Russia – a brutal system exposed by Dean Kirby in a world leading investigation. Kirby used open-source techniques including maps, satellite images and a Cyrillic keyboard to become the first journalist to identify and confirm the existence of the camps in Ukraine. He went on to build a database of 66 more sites in Russia, stretching to Vladivostok. His work was referenced in an OSCE report on Russian war crimes, which confirmed more than one million Ukrainians had been taken over the Russian border.
The investigation made headlines in countries across Europe including Spain, Finland, Poland and Croatia and was followed up by media organisations in Canada, the US and Japan, including the Washington Post. Carl Bild, Sweden’s former Prime Minister, was among those who shared the investigation on Twitter and it was mentioned in the Human Rights Watch Daily Briefing. Two days after the 66 camps story, the Pentagon’s spokesman John Kirby confirmed that Washington had seen “indications that Ukrainians were being taken against their will to Russia”. The OSCE later directly referenced the investigation in a report on Russian war crimes. The report described the camps as a “new alarming phenomena” and said OSCE was “gravely concerned about the mistreatment of Ukrainians in them. In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that it was the US view that Russia had forcibly deported Ukrainians, often to isolated regions in the Far East. He said: “The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime. Russian authorities must release those detained and allow Ukrainian citizens forcibly removed or coerced into leaving their country the ability to promptly and safely return home.” In September, a major report by Human Rights Watch said Russia had committed a serious violation of the laws of war and a potential crime against humanity. It said the process involved “a form of compulsory security screening, in which they typically collected civilians’ biometric data, including fingerprints and front and side facial images; conducted body searches, and searched personal belongings and phones; and questioned them about their political views”. This was confirmation of my previous reporting. In total, the coverage reached an audience of 3.4 million people and prompted 130,000 engagements.
This investigation used open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques to find an locate the camps. This involved searching social media for the camps in Russian, using a Cyrillic keyboard to translate road signs and identifying markers in videos including roads, trees and even a bus stop which were then matched up with online maps. The first camp was located using these markers as well as the unusually-shaped red roof of a farmers’ market. As the camp did not show up on satellite images on Google Earth, which were not up to date, co-ordinates were passed to two satellite firms who provided up-to-date satellite imagery of the camp in the location where I expected it to be based on my anaysis. I then repeated this exercise using Russian TV news footage and other sources including Kremlin documents to establish that groups of Ukrainians were arriving in towns across Russia and, again using satellite imagery and tools including dash-cam footage, built a database of the locations of 66 camps, including a former chemical weapons site. Using this database, I calculated how many people were in these camps. This enabled me to work out an estimate for the number of camps across Russia. I also made gifs of some of the locations on Sentinel Hub, which showed the camps being built. I was also able to use the same techniques to find a number of detention centres in Ukraine. The investigation also used traditional reporting techniques including interviews with people who had been in the camps to reveal the full extent of the filtration system from within Ukraine to the far reaches of Russia and to show how it was centrally co-ordinated by Moscow.
Context about the project:
This investigation involved finding temporary camps that were being built behind the frontlines of the war in Ukraine – out of the public eye and far beyond the access of foreign correspondents based in the country – and deep in the countryside in Russia, the largest country on Earth. It at first seemed an impossible task to locate the camps, particularly as a non-Russian speaker, but using novel OSINT techniques made it possible. At the time I first reported on this issue, world governments and human rights organisations including the ICRC were unable to confirm my reporting because they had no evidence of their own on which to substantiate the evidence. It was only months later that they were able to provide confirmation.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This investigation shows what can be achieved by journalists using OSINT techniques combined with traditional journalism skills.