After a deadly jail blast, Ukrainians want answers about war prisoners held by Russia
LVIV, Ukraine — Olha Kerod was busy at work at a pharmacy in this western Ukrainian city when she got a frantic call from her teenage daughter, Anyuta.
"My daughter said, 'Mom, something exploded in Olenivka!'" she says. "She said they blew up a building, and many people died."
Olenivka is a prison colony in eastern Ukraine that's occupied by Russian-backed forces. Russia holds captured Ukrainian soldiers there. On July 29, the day of the explosion, Olha's husband Stanislav — she calls him Stas for short — was in that prison.
"Everyone started calling me, texting me, asking, 'Olha, Olha, what has happened?'" she recalls. "But I didn't know anything about Stas."
She found out that at least 50 imprisoned soldiers had died and scores more were wounded in Olenivka. The grim news came after gruesome videos appeared on social media showing a Russian soldier castrating, then killing, an imprisoned soldier. She coped with the terrifying uncertainty of her husband's captivity by pushing herself to stay optimistic.
"I didn't cry, I didn't panic," she says. "I told myself and my daughter: Don't believe anything until we know for sure."
They assumed it was an evacuation
At the time, Olha had not seen Stas, 39, for five months, since Russian forces bombed and shelled the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where he served as a naval border guard.
The Russian siege of the city left thousands of soldiers and civilians dead and nearly every building damaged. This spring, Stas joined several thousand soldiers who barricaded themselves beneath Azovstal, a sprawling local steelworks factory, in a final last stand. NPR reached Stas there via WhatsApp.
He sent several voice memos describing the constant bombing and shelling, how they were running out of medicine and food, and how relieved he was that his own family had escaped Mariupol. In May, Stas and about 2,000 other soldiers left Azovstal in what many assumed was an evacuation. Instead, they became Russia's prisoners.
"We are being evacuated into captivity," read his last text to NPR.
A couple of weeks later, Olha meets NPR outside the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic church in Lviv where she often prays.
"I pray for all the soldiers, not just Stas," says the 36-year-old, her voice breaking. "I will keep praying until they all come home."
Olha and Stas got married in 2005, a year after meeting at a friend's wedding. He was sweet, smart and handsome, she says, but taciturn, "a soldier to the core, who always keeps his emotions inside."
When he was away on duty, he always told Olha the same thing — "everything is OK, don't worry." At home, he spent his time working around the house, cooking big meals with their daughter Anyuta and listening to ballads by the Ukrainian rock band Skryabin with Olha.
Stas returned to duty just before Russia invaded in February. He urged Olha to take Anyuta and go to western Ukraine, near the NATO border with Poland. Olha resisted at first, until she found Anyuta weeping at night because her classmates had fled, some to the West, some to Russia. When the bombing began, Olha and Anhuta traveled across the country to the western city of Lviv. Soon after, the Russian attack on Mariupol intensified, leaving thousands dead and their city in smoldering ruins.
Stas and the other soldiers retreated to Azovstal — a steel plant that employed thousands in Mariupol. The plant had a vast network of underground shelters, where the soldiers and hundreds of civilians holed up.
Olha learned from news reports that the Russians were constantly bombing and shelling the steel plant. But Stas' texts from the siege were calm: "Everything is OK. Don't worry."
He sent Olha photos of himself and the other soldiers making pancakes with the last of the flour and sugar stockpiled underneath the plant. Olha says he looked like he had aged at least 10 years.
An explosion that shocked the world
After the soldiers became Russian prisoners, Olha says she could not contact Stas directly. She heard his voice only once, when he called her from a number she didn't recognize.
"He told me that the conditions inside the prison were terrible, that prisoners were fed only once every two days, that hygiene was nonexistent," she says. After that, she received a few short texts, saying, "Everything's fine, don't worry."
A prisoner exchange in late June got Olha's hopes up. And even though Stas wasn't among the Ukrainian prisoners freed, she heard there would be more exchanges.
Then, on July 29, came the explosion.
The blast destroyed a warehouse where prisoners had recently been moved. Images of charred bodies appeared on social media.
Ukraine said Russian forces blew up the building to cover up their torture of Ukrainian prisoners. Russia in turn accused Ukraine of killing its own soldiers to keep them from talking.
"I didn't believe it, that such a thing could happen, that even the Russians could do such a thing," she said. "It probably shocked the whole world."
They didn't know where to go
Hundreds of miles east, in the capital of Kyiv, Alla Samoilenko was also shocked.
The movie casting director was desperate for news on her 27-year-old son, Ilya.
"I've heard only rumors," she says. "It's very hard."
Alla says Ilya joined the Ukrainian military in 2015, when he was studying history at university. Russia's takeover of Crimea and its support for proxy fighters in the eastern Donbas region convinced him to join, his mother says.
He chose a regiment called Azov, which had become legendary for blocking a previous Russian attack on Mariupol in 2014. The regiment had its origins in a volunteer battalion founded by a far-right nationalist, but experts say most of the radicals left after the battalion became part of the Ukrainian army in 2015. The Kremlin calls the regiment Nazis, which infuriates Alla Samoilenko.
"Russia should look at itself when it speaks about Nazis," she says. "It is Russia who behaves in fascist way."
She feared that the Russians would use the captured Azov fighters for propaganda. One Russian TV network showed a hospitalized soldier saying fighting the Russians "will never lead to anything good." The Russian presenter asked several others "how many people have you killed?" Some Russian politicians demanded that the Ukrainian soldiers be tried for war crimes.
Alla spoke with her son often while he was barricaded under Azovstal, but she says she hasn't heard from him since he was taken prisoner. She knew many soldiers in Ilya's regiment were in Olenivka. She pleaded for help from the International Committee for the Red Cross, which under international law should have access to war prisoners. The ICRC's representatives were polite and "full of mercy" during the meeting, she says. But after that, she heard nothing.
"We want to make even very small steps to help," she says, describing the search for information on her son. "But we don't know where to go."
Russian authorities have blocked the Red Cross and other independent investigators from entering the site of the explosion. They instead brought in their own experts, who repeated Kremlin talking points that Ukraine and the U.S. were responsible for the explosion.
We don't know how to get answers
In cities across Ukraine, the families of the imprisoned soldiers took to the streets to demand information and justice.
Yaroslava Ivantsova, 48, protested in the central region of Kirovograd, where she lives with her daughter and grandchildren after escaping the fall of Mariupol. She lost touch with her 50-year-old husband, Nikolai Ivantsov, after the surrender at Azovstal. Her daughter Viktoriia Lyashuk, 27, also had not heard from her husband, Oleksii, another Azov fighter, since then.
"The Red Cross contacted us once, right after they were taken prisoner, and told us that they had been taken into Russian-held territory," Yaroslava says. "And that was it."
She met Nikolai when she was a freshman in college and he was a new military recruit. Even after decades together — and four children, four grandchildren — Yaroslava says they were inseparable. They gardened together, and he liked showing her his collection of old coins. "He is something of an amateur archaeologist, with special equipment and maps, with all the curiosity of a young boy," she says, smiling.
Like Alla Samoilenko, Yaroslava had read that the Azov soldiers were in the Olenivka prison colony. Since the explosion, she and Viktoriia have spent hours scouring Russian social media channels for details on Nikolai and Oleksii.
A few days after the explosion, the Russian military published a list of dead and wounded. Ivantsova saw her son-in-law's name on the list of injured.
"We started cold-calling hospitals in the occupied territories to find out which ones had taken the wounded," she says, "but unfortunately we couldn't get any information. The hospitals only said they didn't have any Ukrainian soldiers there."
Nikolai's name wasn't on the list. Neither was Alla Samoilenko's son Ilya. They haven't heard from the soldiers.
"I mean, [Russia] can kill all of them, without any responsibility," Alla says. "And no one in the world can do something."
The feeling of being forgotten
Back in Lviv, Olha Kerod got better news. She finally got a text from her husband, Stas.
"He wrote to say that he was alive," she says. "That he misses us so much. That he's tired and wondering if people have forgotten about him and the other soldiers."
Ukrainians haven't forgotten. Giant banners dedicated to the "Azovstal defenders" hang on administrative buildings around the country. Olha recently posted a video on Facebook of the soldiers singing in the catacombs of Azovstal, before the final fall of their city, trapped underground and yet still free.
Olha clings to the hope that there might be another prisoner exchange. "One day the Russians say yes, the next day they say no," she says. "It's a limbo that we've been living with for months. So we wait."
The soldiers of Azovstal who survived the explosion in Olenivka face an uncertain fate. The leader of a Russian proxy state in occupied eastern Ukraine says there are plans to put Azovstal soldiers on trial in Mariupol.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry claims that the Russian troops, who now control Mariupol, are building cages for the imprisoned soldiers in the city's philharmonic hall, where the trial will reportedly be held. Ukrainian authorities say the trial could start any day.
Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Odesa, Ukraine, and Kateryna Korchynska from London. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.