Screams of tortured soldiers, overflowing cells, inhuman conditions, a regime of intimidation and murder. Inedible porridge, no communication with the outside world and days marked by a home-made calendar written on a tea tin.
This is, according to a prisoner who was there, what conditions are like at Olenivka, the notorious detention center outside Donetsk where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers were burned alive in a horrific episode at the end last month while in Russian captivity.
Anna Vorosheva – a 45-year-old Ukrainian entrepreneur – gave a poignant account of the Observer of his time inside the prison. She spent 100 days in Olenivka after being detained in mid-March at a checkpoint manned by the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine.
She had tried to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, her hometown, besieged by the Russian army. The separatists arrested her and drove her in a crowded 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 had “cynically and deliberately” murdered Ukrainian prisoners of war. “We’re talking about absolute evil,” she said.
The fighters exploded on July 29 in a mysterious and devastating explosion. Moscow claims Ukraine killed them with an American-made precision-guided Himars rocket. Satellite images and independent analysis, however, suggest that they were wiped out by a powerful bomb that exploded from inside the building.
Russia says 53 prisoners were killed and 75 injured. Ukraine was unable to confirm these figures and requested an investigation. The victims were members of the Azov Battalion. Until their surrender in May, they had defended the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, resisting underground.
The day before the explosion, they were moved to a separate area of the camp’s industrial zone, some distance from the filthy 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 stay alive. I’m sure some of those who were “killed” in the explosion were already corpses. It was a practical way of reporting that they had been tortured to death,” she said.
Male prisoners were routinely taken out of their cells, beaten, and then locked up again. “We heard their cries,” she said. “They put on loud music to drown out the screams. Torture happened all the time. Investigators joked about it and asked inmates, “What happened to your face?” The soldier would say, “I fell” and they would laugh.
“It was a show of power. The prisoners understood that anything could happen to them, that they could easily be killed. A small number of 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 turned into a prison in the 1980s and then abandoned. The DNR began using it earlier this year to house enemy civilians.
Captives were arriving and departing every day at the camp, 20 km southwest of occupied Donetsk, Vorosheva told the Observer. About 2,500 people were held there, with that figure sometimes reaching 3,500 to 4,000, she estimated. There was no running water or electricity.
The atmosphere changed when some 2,000 fighters from Azov were transported by bus on the morning of May 17, she said. The Russian flags were hoisted and the DNR colors withdrawn. The guards were initially wary of new prisoners. They later spoke openly about how they were going to bully and humiliate them, she said.
“We were often called Nazis and terrorists. One of the women in my cell was a doctor from Azovstal. She was pregnant. I asked if I could give her my food ration. I was told: ‘No, she’s a killer’. The only question they ever asked me was: ‘Do you know any soldiers from Azov?’ »
The conditions for the detainees were grim. She said they were not tortured but barely given any food – 50g of bread for dinner and sometimes porridge. “It was good for the pigs,” she said. She suspected the prison director of having siphoned off the money allocated for meals. The toilets overflowed and the women did not receive sanitary products. The cells were so overcrowded that they slept in shifts. ” It was hard. People were crying, worried about their children and their families. When asked if the guards had ever shown sympathy, she said an anonymous person once left them a bottle of shampoo.
According to Vorosheva, camp staff were brainwashed by Russian propaganda and viewed Ukrainians as Nazis. Some were local villagers. “They blamed us for the fact that their lives were terrible. It was like an alcoholic who says he drinks vodka because his wife is no good.
“The philosophy is, ‘Everything is horrible for us, so everything should be horrible for you.’ Everything is very communist.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy 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 gave details of clues they say point to the Kremlin’s culpability.
Citing satellite images, phone intercepts and intelligence, they said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group carried out the killings in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s FSB spy agency. They point to the fact that a row of graves was dug in the settlement 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,” an intelligence source said. “The question is: when will Putin acknowledge his atrocities.”
One version of events examined by Kyiv is that the explosion may have been the result of intra-service rivalries between Russia’s FSB and GRU military intelligence wings. The GRU negotiated the surrender of Azovstal with its counterpart in the Ukrainian army, sources suggest – a deal the FSB may have wanted to frustrate.
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 detainees would be properly treated. Since the explosion, the Russians have refused to give international officials any access to the site.
Vorosheva said the Red Cross was allowed into the camp in May. She said that the Russians took the visitors to a specially renovated room and did not allow them to talk independently to the prisoners. “It was a show,” she said. “We were asked to give the size of our clothes and were told that the Red Cross would distribute something. Nothing has reached us.
Other inmates confirmed Vorosheva’s version of events and said Azov soldiers were treated worse than civilians. Dmitry Bodrov, a 32-year-old volunteer, told the the wall street journal the guards took anyone they suspected of misbehavior to a special disciplinary section of the camp to be beaten.
They came out limping and moaning, he said. Some captives were forced to crawl back to their cells. Another prisoner, Stanislav Hlushkov, said a regularly beaten inmate was found dead in solitary confinement. Orderlies put a sheet over his head, loaded him into a mortuary van and told the other inmates that he had “committed suicide”.
Vorosheva was released on July 4. It was, she said, a “miracle”. “The guards read the names of those who were going to be released. Everyone listened in silence. My heart jumped when I heard my name. I packed my stuff but didn’t celebrate. There have been instances where people were on the list, walked 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.