Killing of prisoners of war in Olenivka and search for survivors: what are international organizations doing? Results of the trip to Geneva

The tragic night at Azovstal: terrorist act and its aftermath

A year has passed since the evacuation of defenders of Mariupol from the Azovstal (Iron and Steel Works) fortress began. What happened during this difficult year? Where are the defenders of besieged Mariupol now, who surrendered under the guarantee of preserving their lives?

Every day we start with a question to ourselves: “Why is it so?” After recovering a little, you start to think: “What else can I do?” For the majority of society, the surrender at Azovstal meant that the Mariupol garrison was saved. But that’s not the case. As of today, only 2,324 people have been released. Have you ever wondered how many of these are military personnel who, following orders, ceased their defense and went into captivity? The defenders from Azovstal account for less than a quarter of the total number of those released from Russian captivity. That’s the statistics.

Failed security guarantees and lack of international support

They were promised decent living conditions, a rough outline of the captivity period, and most importantly, they were given hope that they would return home. The night of July 28-29 proved the absence of security guarantees for the prisoners of war. Over 50 prisoners were killed and more than 100 injured, among those who surrendered at Azovstal. Even after such a massive tragedy, international organizations did not come to the prisoners of war. We were expecting an international investigation, but instead, it was simply halted after six months without even starting. And just nine months after the terrorist act, a delegation from the Olenivka Families Community went to Geneva on its own.

On May 5, representatives of the community visited the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It was difficult to talk because when you speak about torture and hear in response that we are not allowed in and the ICRC is a neutral party, “the world is simply turned upside down.” We find out that they do not have a separate case regarding Olenivka, as Russia does not allow them access to the prisoners of war. Additionally, witnesses of the hangar explosion refused to testify to the ICRC.

On May 8, the delegation from the Olenivka Families Community was received at the UN headquarters. The position of this organization differs little from that of the ICRC, but it was the UN that created the investigative mission and subsequently disbanded it. What did we manage to find out?

  • The investigative mission was created in New York and subsequently disbanded.
  • Eight witnesses who returned to Ukraine were interviewed.
  • The international investigative mission did not participate in the investigation of the bodies in Olenivka as they did not receive an official request from Ukraine.
  • UN representatives are unable to visit the injured due to the terrorist act as Russia does not grant access to the prisoners of war.

See also: Ukraine is not Vietnam: why Russians are willing to kill “their boys” endlessly

The representatives of the community brought video footage for international organizations, showing the horrifying aftermath of the terrorist act in Olenivka and the faces of the prisoners of war who were blown out in the barracks. Tears could be seen on the faces of international figures, but at the same time, they repeated that they were a neutral party.

International organizations and investigation: inaction and hurdles

Our delegation was presented with a report by Matilda Bogner, the Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which was published on March 24, 2023, and indeed contains sections about Olenivka. Here are the main points:

“72. During the night of 28–29 July 2022, at least 50 Ukrainian POWs were killed and many more injured after explosive weapons reportedly hit a barrack with 193 Ukrainian POWs (all members of the “Azov” regiment) in the penal colony No. 120, located approximately 5 km east of the town of Olenivka (part of the Donetsk region occupied by the Russian Federation).”

“73. OHCHR collected and analyzed publicly available information on the incident, including over 20 statements by officials of the Russian Federation and representatives of the (former) self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’; over 70 videos and photographs related to the incident, including from inside and outside the barracks; satellite imagery of the barracks and the colony before and after the incident; and other relevant contextual information. Additionally, from September 2022 to January 2023, OHCHR interviewed 55 Ukrainian POWs who were in the colony on the night of the attack and the next day, including eight survivors from the affected barracks, and several POWs who took part in bringing out dead bodies from the barracks on the next day.”

“74. OHCHR documented that the 193 POWs were transferred on 27 July to this barrack, which was refurbished from an industrial shed that stood separately from the other barracks in the colony. That same day, the colony management ordered that the guard post be moved further from the barrack and that a fortified trench be dug for the guards, which was not done for other barracks. On 28 July, the guards of the barrack wore bullet-proof vests and helmets, which they had not done before and unlike other colony personnel who rarely wore them. POWs interned in different barracks reported that “Grad” rocket system, which had been placed close to their barracks and near the colony’s fence just before the incident, was firing in a westerly direction away from the colony and covered the sounds of the explosions that killed and injured the POWs. A Ukrainian civilian detainee who acted as a liaison for the administration ordered the POWs who cleared debris and removed dead bodies on 29 July to keep silent about what they saw.”

“75. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, both Governments of Ukraine and the Russian Federation traded accusations that the other had deliberately targeted the barracks.”

“76. OHCHR will continue to gather and analyse information on this incident. OHCHR found that the number of POWs who died from the attack could have been considerably lower if those heavily injured by the explosions had been provided with prompt medical care. The survivors had numerous injuries, including serious burns and wounds from fragments of projectiles and the barrack. However, medical assistance was not provided by personnel of the colony, and survivors had to do what they could to try to help stop each other’s bleeding without proper medical equipment. OHCHR documented that multiple injured POWs died on the ground near the entrance to the colony, reportedly due to massive blood loss. Survivors were taken to hospitals in Donetsk only 5-7 hours after the attack, in overcrowded trucks that drove over bumpy roads, causing additional suffering to the injured POWs. The POWs who survived with light injuries were placed in a so-called disciplinary isolation ward for one month, where they were effectively isolated from communicating with other POWs in the colony,” says the UN’s report on the treatment of prisoners of war in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.

The chances of restoring the international investigation are slim. The surviving prisoners of war who were affected by the barracks explosion are still held captive. There must be an end to this cycle of inaction, and we will definitely make sure of it. We continue to fight for justice and the freedom of Ukrainian military personnel, whose lives were promised to be preserved.

Originally posted on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: “You wanted it yourself.” What are the victims of violence by Russian military afraid of and what do they remain silent about?

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