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‘Absolute evil’: inside the Russian prison camp where dozens of Ukrainians burned to death | Ukraine

Written by Javed Iqbal

Screams of soldiers being tortured, overcrowded cells, inhumane conditions, a regime of intimidation and murder. Inedible gruel, no communication with the outside world, and days marked with a homemade calendar written on a box of tea.

This, according to a prisoner who was there, is how conditions are inside Olenivka notorious detention center outside Donetsk where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers burned to death in a terrible episode late last month while in Russian captivity.

Anna Vorosheva – a 45-year-old Ukrainian entrepreneur – gave a harrowing account to Observer of her time in prison. She spent 100 days in Olenivka after being detained in mid-March at a checkpoint run by the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in the east Ukraine.

She had been trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, her hometown, which the Russian army had besieged. The separatists arrested her and drove her in a packed police van to prison, where she was held until early July on charges of “terrorism”.

Now recovering in France, Vorosheva said she had no doubt that Russia “cynically and deliberately” murdered Ukrainian prisoners of war. “We’re talking about absolute evil,” she said.

The fighters were blown up on July 29 in a mysterious and devastating explosion. Moscow claims Ukraine killed them with an American-made Himars precision-guided missile. However, satellite images and independent analysis suggest that they were obliterated by a powerful bomb detonated from inside the building.

Russia says 53 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded. Ukraine has been unable to confirm these figures and has called for an investigation. The victims were members of the Azov Battalion. Until their surrender in May, they had defended Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, which held out underground.

A day before the explosion, they were transferred to a separate area in the camp’s industrial zone, some distance from the dirty two-story concrete block where Vorosheva shared a cell with other female prisoners. Video shown on Russian state television revealed charred bodies and twisted metal bunk beds.

“Russia didn’t want them to be alive. I’m sure some of those ‘killed’ in the explosion were already dead. It was a convenient way to explain that they had been tortured to death,” she said.

Male prisoners were regularly removed from their cells, beaten and then locked up again. “We heard their cries,” she said. “They played loud music to cover up the screams. Torture took place all the time. Interrogators joked about it, asking the inmates, ‘What happened to your face?’ The soldier would reply, ‘I fell over,’ and they would laugh.

“It was a demonstration of power. The prisoners understood that anything could happen to them, so they could easily be killed. A small number of the Azov guys were captured before the mass surrender in May.”

Vorosheva said there was constant traffic around Olenivka, known as Correctional Colony No. 120. A former Soviet agricultural school, it was converted in the 1980s into a prison and later abandoned. The DNR began using it earlier this year to house enemy civilians.

The prisoners arrived and traveled every day to the camp, 20 km southwest of occupied Donetsk, Vorosheva said. Observer. About 2,500 people were held there, and the number sometimes rose to 3,500-4,000, she estimated. There was neither running water nor electricity.

The atmosphere changed when about 2,000 Azov fighters were bussed in on the morning of May 17, she said. Russian flags were raised and the DNR colors taken down. The guards were initially wary of the new prisoners. Later, they talked openly about how they would brutalize and humiliate them, she said.

“We were often called Nazis and terrorists. One of the women in my cell was an Azovstal doctor. She was pregnant. I asked if I could give her my food ration. I was told, ‘No, she’s a murderer.’ The only question they ever asked me was: ‘Do you know any Azov soldiers?'”

Conditions for the female inmates were grim. She said they were not tortured, but were given almost no food – 50g of bread for dinner and sometimes porridge. “It was fit for pigs,” she said. She suspected that the prison governor was swallowing money for meals. The toilets overflowed and the women were given no hygiene products. The cells were so overcrowded that they slept in shifts. “It was hard. People were crying and worried about their children and families.” Asked if the guards ever showed sympathy, she said an anonymous person once left them a bottle of shampoo.

According to Vorosheva, the camp’s staff were brainwashed by Russian propaganda and considered Ukrainians to be Nazis. Some were local villagers. “They blamed us for their terrible lives. It was like an alcoholic saying he drinks vodka because his wife is no good.

“The philosophy is: ‘Everything is terrible for us, so everything should be terrible for you’. It is all very communist.”

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has called the explosion “a deliberate Russian war crime and a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war”. Last week, his office and Ukraine’s defense ministry detailed clues they say point to Kremlin culpability.

Relatives of Azov battalion soldiers protest in Kiev after the explosion in Olenivka prison
Friends and relatives of Azov Battalion soldiers protest in Kiev after the explosion at Olenivka prison that killed dozens of prisoners of war. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Citing satellite images and wiretapping and intelligence, they said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group carried out the killings in collaboration with Vladimir Putin‘s FSB spy agency. They point out that a number of graves were dug in the colony a few days before the explosion.

The operation was approved at the “highest level” in Moscow, they claim. “Russia is not a democracy. The dictator is personally responsible for everything, be it MH17, Bucha or Olenivka,” said an intelligence source. “The question is: when will Putin acknowledge his atrocities.”

One version of events that Kyiv is investigating is that the explosion may have been the result of intra-service rivalry between Russia’s FSB and GRU military intelligence departments. The GRU negotiated Azovstal’s surrender with its Ukrainian army counterpart, sources suggest – a deal the FSB may have been keen to destroy.

The soldiers should have been protected by guarantees given by Russia to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross that the Azov prisoners would be treated properly. Since the explosion, the Russians have refused to allow international representatives access to the site.

Vorosheva said the Red Cross was allowed to enter the camp in May. She said the Russians took the visitors to a specially renovated room and did not allow them to speak independently with the prisoners. “It was a show,” she said. “We were asked to state our clothing size and told that the Red Cross would distribute something. Nothing reached us.”

Other prisoners confirmed Vorosheva’s version of events, saying that the Azov soldiers were treated worse than civilians. Dmitry Bodrov, a 32-year-old volunteer worker, told The Wall Street Journal the guards took all those suspected of bad behavior to a special disciplinary section in the camp for beatings.

They came limping and groaning, he said. Some prisoners were forced to crawl back to their cells. Another prisoner, Stanislav Hlushkov, said an inmate who was regularly beaten was found dead in solitary confinement. Officers placed a sheet over his head, loaded him into a hearse and told other inmates that he had “committed suicide”.

Vorosheva was freed on July 4. It was, she said, a “miracle”. “The guards read out the names of those who were to be freed. Everyone listened in silence. My heart jumped when I heard my name. I packed my things but didn’t celebrate. There were cases where people were on the list, got out and then came back.”

She added: “The people running the camp represent the worst aspects of the Soviet Union. They could only behave well if they thought no one was watching.”

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Javed Iqbal

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