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The massacre of prisoners of war from Mariupol. International organisations are helpless in the face of Russian crimes

Fifty-three Ukrainian POWs were killed as a result of an explosion in the internment camp in Olenivka on July 29th 2022. A war crime the Kremlin offered to Russian public opinion which demanded a show of force against the members of Azov instead of a prisoner exchange.

September 14, 2022 - Dmytro Rybakov - Hot Topics

Photo: Norb_KM / Shutterstock

The defence of Mariupol lasted for 86 days. Ukrainian forces were completely surrounded, sometimes by more than 20 times the number of Russians, who also possessed the advantage in air support and artillery. The Mariupol garrison not only held its ground but counterattacked. They would capture both combatants and equipment. It seemed that the Azovstal ironworks was becoming an impregnable fortress.

From a tactical point of view such a defence could last for months. However, other than the 2,500 defenders comprised of different units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, national guard, border guard and police, several thousand civilians, mostly women and children, hid in its underground (between 4,000-8,000 according to the International Committee of the Red Cross). These were families of the military personnel as well as ordinary residents of Mariupol whose housing had been destroyed by aerial attacks. Due to the large number of people rations of food and water reached critical levels in mid-April. As long as there were spring rains it was still possible to collect water. At times it was possible to collect morning dew on the metal roof, but as it became warmer in May even this became challenging.

Medicines, painkillers in particular, ran out even earlier. Due to the humidity and lack of ventilation, doctors were forced to amputate in cases of severe injuries in order to avoid gangrene. The worst moments came on April 28th, when the Russian air force dropped several tonnes of bombs on Azovstal. The hospital was completely destroyed burying the injured, medical personnel and the critical storage of medicines.

The situation became hopeless. The only chance to survive was an evacuation of the garrison through a neutral party. Turkey was ready to extract people onto their ships and keep them safe until the end of the war; but this proposal was quickly dismissed by the Russian command. The only other option which remained was to agree on the imminent evacuation of the civilians.


Dozens of diplomats participated in the negotiations which included religious leaders of all faiths, the pope and movie stars. A call to save the soldiers and civilians from Azovstal was even uttered during the final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres visited both Moscow and Kyiv. As a result of his visit, a ceasefire was announced and civilians were evacuated from the ironworks. Most of them had to make it through several Russian checkpoints which included a humiliating “filtration” procedure. Finally, they managed to cross into Ukrainian controlled territory. Some were stuck in these filtration camps for “refugees” inside Russia. Their relatives have not heard from them since.

This is the reason behind Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to negotiate the surrender of the Mariupol garrison with the Russians. Half of the soldiers had light to severe injuries. Fifty of them were promptly sent to an exchange overseen by the International Red Cross, most of which were amputees. Some 300 bodies, both military and civilian, were also transferred to the Ukrainian side. The last defenders of Mariupol left Azovstal on May 20th, including battalion commander Denys Prokopenko “Redis” from “Azov”, his deputy Sviatoslav Palamar “Kalyna” and infantry brigadier Serhi Volynski “Volyna”.

The total amount of soldiers that put down their arms in line with the agreement is not known. According to my sources it was approximately 1,000 soldiers from “Azov”, some 300 soldiers from the 36th brigade that had managed to break into the ironworks at the beginning of April to reinforce the defenders (most of the brigade was killed in action or captured in March), a hundred border guards, a few dozen police from Mariupol and medical staff from the 555th military hospital. The medical workers had refrained from the evacuation with the civilians. Among them were a dozen paramedics and volunteers from the “Hospitallers” battalion, with them was the voice of Azovstal, Kateryna “Ptashka”.

The numbers given by the Russian side do not seem trustworthy. The Russians often keep different volunteers among their prisoners of war. Examples of this are the famous nurse Yulia Payevska “Tayra”, or other civilians suspected of “disloyalty”, with a few of my interlocutors among them. It is clear that by the end of June some 144 POWs had been exchanged, including 95 Azovstal defenders.

The purpose of a massacre

The captive soldiers were held in a few locations, which were initially accessible by representatives of international organisations. These were prisons in the Donetsk area, Novoazovsk and Olenivka. However, detention facilities in the Rostov region of Russia were also used. Later on, the international community lost access to the situation. Further exchanges never took place and the communication between POWs and international organisations were routinely sabotaged.

At the same time, there was a mass hysteria in Russian media regarding death penalties for the “Azov” unit for “the genocide of Donbas”. One of the starting points of this idea was the Russian embassy in London, which demanded through its official account that the “Azov” POWs be hung. What followed was the worst possible scenario mentioned by those who had been captured by Russians in the past or had experience in negotiating humanitarian issues with them.

On July 29th an unexplained explosion rocked one of the barracks of the Olenivka colony. Two days earlier some 150 “Azov” captives had been moved there. 53 died and 100 were severely burnt. This was one of the logistical barracks of the former prison colony that ceased operations over ten years ago. This means that it was not fit to hold such a large number of people. It was constructed by solid concrete. Metal bunk beds had been placed in a big hall. We know little about the conditions for the captive soldiers, as the ICRC did not have access to them since mid-June.

According to the Russian side a HIMARS artillery projectile hit the hall where the POWs were held. Kremlin media outlets began disseminating falsehoods claiming this was done by Ukraine to kill the soldiers that had agreed to collaborate with the occupation and agreed to testify in a process on the “crimes of the Kyiv regime against the people of Donbas”. Furthermore, none of the guards or employees of the complex was injured according to the “human rights commissar” of the pro-Russian administration.

The Russian version was dismissed by nearly all analysts and western media on the basis of satellite footage and video clips released by Russia. As expected, there were no craters from a HIMARS missile. Russian media however, reused footage of debris from a shell. All the metal beds had remained in their places, but only charred frames were left. This would be impossible if hit by a long-range missile which creates a shockwave upon impact.

Explosive experts and criminologists from different countries came to the same conclusion –that the detonation had to have taken place inside the building. Its cause was probably a thermobaric projectile that created an area of extreme heat, as was claimed by the General Prosecutor of Ukraine Andriy Kostin on August 1st on Ukrainian TV.

The Central Intelligence of the Armed Forces of Ukraine came to the conclusion that the Russians had no intention of an exchange and killed the POWs to cover up torture. The Russian Wagner mercenaries had surrounded the prison facility with a flammable substance, which in turn led to an explosion inside.

“A showcase execution of soldiers of the “Azov” unit was aimed at making the Ukrainians furious with their government, the presidential administration in particular, which had instructed the Mariupol garrison to surrender”, believes Yevhen Magda, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of World Policy. 

Powerless international mediators

The International Committee of the Red Cross was created in 1863 as a private institution responsible for the safeguarding of the rights of victims in armed conflict and the humanitarian law as designated in the Geneva conventions. This institution has received the Nobel Peace Prize a few times, like in 1917 for safeguarding the rights of POWs. There are several regional offices of the Red Cross around the world.

The Red Cross’s Russian branch is controlled by the FSB and focuses on spreading propaganda narratives for internal purposes. It also covers the care for Ukrainian “refugees” (in reality victims of forced deportations). In the case of the agreement regarding the Mariupol garrison however, appropriate offices in Geneva were involved.

The ICRC does not guarantee safety for POWs. “International humanitarian law clearly states that prisoners of war, their lives, health and presence are the responsibility of the party that holds them and should care for them.” This is according to a statement from the committee quoted August 7th by The New Voice of Ukraine.

This interpretation was challenged by Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelenskyy, who was involved in the negotiating the fate of the Mariupol garrison. “The Red Cross should be the one to oversee the implementation of the Geneva conventions regarding POWs and the conditions they are kept in, both in our country and in Russian captivity,” he said in a radio interview.

“As a neutral negotiator we managed to secure safe passage for the combatants of Azovstal through interacting between the two warring parties. At the moment it is the Russian side which is responsible for them according to the Geneva conventions,” replied Alexander Vlasenko, the spokesperson of the ICRC.

The Red Cross proposed to transfer medicines, protective gear and forensic equipment to examine the bodies of victims. It also asked to be allowed into the area itself. Both requests remained unanswered. A Ukrainian volunteer, Andriy M., who spent over a month in Olenivka prison until mid-May, remembers how representatives of the Red Cross came through at one point: “They were taken into a room for a short time, leaving the Russian media behind. They did not visit our barracks, even if a place that kept civilians illegally should be one of the priorities of the Red Cross,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

Death of humanitarian law

Viktoria Soloduhina, an activist with the Society for Relatives of Missing Persons, is critical towards the capabilities of contemporary humanitarian law, which is “dying in front of the eyes of the world”. She is even more critical about the negotiations overseen by the presidential office of Ukraine, especially the role of the deputy prime minister responsible for the reintegration of occupied territories – Iryna Vereshchuk.

“After July 29th I heard nothing about Vereshchuk demanding culpability from the signatories after the guarantees she had boasted of were broken. I did not hear a single official who would accuse Russia, the UN or Red Cross of not fulfilling their obligations,” Soloduhina said. Despite attempts, I did not receive a comment from the office of Vereshchuk, as her schedule was too busy.

The relatives of Ukrainian POWs deem the silence from all parties unacceptable. “The Red Cross has still not informed how many are dead, how many are in hospitals in uncontrolled territories or how they will return the deceased. We were promised that our boys would come back home alive, but these promises were not kept,” says Sandra Krotevych, the sister of the head of the regiment headquarters of “Azov”, Bohdan Krotevych “Tawra”.

“I am not happy about how little information we get in return. The Red Cross is not explaining anything to the relatives of the captives. It claims this is due to understaffing,” adds Alla Samoylenko, the mother of Ilya Samoylenko, an intelligence officer with “Azov”.

I heard even more criticism from the relatives of the POWs from Mariupol, who complain that the Ukrainian authorities do not communicate with them at all. “The only thing that the SBU, the intelligence office, the ministry of defence and interior do is to collect information from us. Then there is silence,” says a mother of one of the “Azov” POWs on the condition of anonymity.

For a long while, the deputy minister of defence, Hanna Malar, called for media silence on the fate of Ukrainian POWs.

“I personally asked the relatives of prisoners to avoid publicity, refrain from giving interviews and not to visit independent human rights organisations because they have it under control. After the mass murder in Olenivka the relatives saw that not everything is under control”, I am told by the Ukrainian political commentator Maryna Daniluk-Yermolayeva. The recently appointed Ukrainian Human Rights Commissar Dmytro Lubinyets attempted to calm the public with guarantees that silence does not mean nothing is being done. According to him “the silence must last until the last defender of Ukraine is freed”. Meanwhile the POWs find themselves in extremely difficult conditions with little food and water.

What can be done

The Geneva convention does not foresee any sanctions for obstructing the activities of the ICRC. Taking into account that these norms are mandatory, not obeying them is a violation of international law.

“The ICRC has not released a statement on the infringements on international law made by Russia. This is true even in connection with the refusal of the Red Cross representatives to visit the place of detention of POWs in Olenivka, which is definitely provided for by the Geneva conventions,” says Zahar Tropin, a professor of law at the University of Kyiv.

The safety system operated by the UN seems even less efficient in the conditions of a clear sabotage of humanitarian law. It does not recognise the situation where a member of the Security Council clearly ignores international law and the decisions of overseeing organs. The option to use coercion against Russia, a key member of the UN, is therefore blocked. “We have found ourselves in a situation where the UN is incapable of getting a single person out of Russian captivity. Without a radical reform of the international peace and security system it will be impossible to avoid similar tragedies in the future,” warns Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties.

According to the official statements, the Head of the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine Matilda Bogner and her colleagues have no access to Olenivka, receiving information only from the Russian side and their proxy “commissar for human rights” in the pro-Russian administration. Ukrainian human rights defenders believe that in order to ensure the safety of prisoners today, more than ever, it is necessary to develop mechanisms that will be automatically triggered in the event of violations of humanitarian law. For example, fines that the ICRC may impose under its statute.

“The Russians prevented the POWs from being visited – protocol, fine. Ukraine did not allow them in – protocol, fine. Ukrainian prisoners were beaten – protocol, fine. Financial penalties for violating humanitarian standards can also be imposed by countries that allocate funds to the ICRC,” argues Viktoria Soloduhina.

Maybe there are other tools to punish the ones who ignore the norms of international humanitarian law. But this is the most straightforward mechanisms that could lead to any effect at all. Otherwise, the mobile crematoria Russia tried to use in Mariupol in the 21st century will begin to be associated with the infamous gas chambers from the previous century.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Dmytro Rybakov lives in Kyiv. He is a financial journalist who co-operates with www.mind.ua. He graduated from the Historical Institute of the Jagellonian University and the Kyiv School of Economics.

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source. 

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