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A crime in the making: Russia’s atrocities

A crime in the making: Russia’s atrocities

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No war crime is ever inevitable, but it’s possible to make one likely. Russia did exactly that before 53 prisoners of war burned to death at Olenivka

Why this story?

Some of the names we know already – the places that are destined to become notorious when the history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is written: Bucha, near Kyiv, where 458 civilians were found dead when the Russian army retreated; Izium just last week, where a very similar number were discovered in a mass grave. War crimes, almost certainly.

What happened inside the prison at Olenivka can’t match either of those atrocities for scale, but something about the deaths of 53 prisoners of war there at the end of July remains uniquely horrific. Crammed inside a hastily-assembled barracks in a disused industrial unit, the soldiers – survivors of the siege of Mariupol – were burned to death when a fire broke out late at night on July 29th. In the absence of a credible explanation from the Russian authorities who were guarding them (who’ve so far spun an implausible yarn) the most likely one remains that this, too, was a war crime. 

For the moment it’s not possible to say that with certainty because Russia has denied access to the scene. The UN hasn’t been allowed in to investigate, and no one who was in Olenivka in late July has emerged to tell the tale. But it is possible to look at everything which preceded the fire – the brutal conditions in the prison, the demonisation of Ukrainian soldiers which ratcheted up, the rage which grew in Russia as Mariupol refused to lie down and surrender – and conclude that almost nothing more could have been done to create the conditions to make a war crime likely. Ceri Thomas, Editor

Transcript

Ceri Thomas, narrating: Back at the end of July something terrible happened at a prison camp where Russian security forces had taken thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Dozens and dozens of prisoners were killed. 53 that we’ve been told about, and maybe more. 

It didn’t take long for the news to come out. And then the Russian authorities started to talk about what had happened in ways I think it’s fair to say have become normal for them – and tried to pass the whole thing off as a regular, horrible accident of war.

They put out a half-hearted explanation without seeming to worry if it really added up or not; they shipped in a clapped-out American actor – someone who hangs out with Vladimir Putin now and then, apparently – and he made a little propaganda film with his “analysis” of events…

Steven Seagal: “I mean we are in the exact place where Himars came in… one of the Nazis that was killed is a Nazi that was just starting to talk a lot about Zelensky… I wonder if that’s why this guy got rocketed and killed.”

Steven Seagal, ladies and gentlemen…

Russia blamed the Ukrainians for everything. It felt deliberately routine: the message was nothing to see here. Nothing out of the ordinary.

It didn’t work, of course, in most of the world anyway. A medium-sized storm blew up. People who didn’t want to buy the idea that it can be normal for 50 people to burn to death – because that’s what happened – shouted for an investigation. And I remember making a note to myself at the time, that this was a moment we shouldn’t just let go by. It could be one of the worst atrocities of this awful war.

But the storm lasted for a week or two, like most of them do. Some good people did great work with satellite pictures and combing through social media chat to piece together a picture of events as best they could, but it became obvious pretty quickly that the UN wasn’t going to be allowed into the prison to do an investigation. So the whole thing looked blocked.

Until earlier this month, actually. When a woman by the name of Rosemary di Carlo, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, stood up in front of the Security Council…

Rosemary di Carlo: “Mr President the fact-finding mission… is set to deploy in the coming days to look into the incident on 29 July that led to the death of 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war. Between 75 and 130 more were injured… I want to thank Ukraine and Russia for their constructive approach in enabling preparations for the mission. We count on their continued support.”

So finally, perhaps, there was a chance we’d find out some more. And we tried to jump on it. My colleagues Nina Kuryata, Imy Harper and I started getting hold of some of the prisoners’ families. We talked to the Red Cross, to the government in Ukraine, to the Russian authorities, the separatists in the east of Ukraine. And most of all to the UN. If they were going in, could we go with them? If not literally, then at least virtually. 

Could we get in while this gate into the prison seemed at least half-open? Into Olenivka.

Ceri: Nina you are, you are from Ukraine, right? But you’re not from this part of it. 

Nina Kuryata: Yes. I’m not from Donetsk region. 

Ceri: Which part are you from? 

Nina: I’m from Odessa region in the south and Donetsk region is in the east and this region is most occupied by Russia since 2014. 

Ceri: If I’m looking at a map of Ukraine and looking for Olenivka, where should I be looking?

Nina: It’s on the right side of Ukrainian map… and Olenivka prison or colony is in Donetsk region, in the district of Volnovakha in the village of Olenivka. And that is why they call it Olenivka.

Ceri: When we’re talking about, uh, Olenivka, we’re talking about quite a big place, aren’t we? The prison itself? 

Nina: Yes. It’s a huge place. There is like six barracks. Every barrack is a two floors building with a lot of cells for a few people each. It is in the field, surrounded with the wire. It’s quite a frightening place even to look at, there are towers every hundred metres.

Ceri: From what I’ve seen, it looks pretty run down?

Nina: Yes, absolutely. As I said it wasn’t in use since 2017. And there was literally nothing in the cells. And they’ve been given only rotted mattresses with bugs and worms in them and the conditions were really, really insane.

Ceri, narrating: What we know for sure about what happened in Olenivka is pretty thin stuff. It probably doesn’t amount to much more than this: at about 11 o’clock at night on 29 July this year a fierce fire broke out in an old industrial building inside the prison where some prisoners of war were being held. Officially, as I said, 53 prisoners died but we’ve got no way of knowing if that’s the true figure. There certainly seem to have been a lot of injuries as well.

Over the next day or two, pictures of the inside of the building after the fire started to come out. You can see the metal bunks still mostly in neat rows. The first time I looked at them I didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. It actually took a second or two before I noticed the charred skeletons lying down on a few of the beds. 

And then there’s the walls – just breeze blocks, cinder blocks. They’re still standing. And the roof – which is a sheet of corrugated iron – is dangling down in places but it’s mostly still there.

And that’s about it, as far as hard facts go.

“Russia has actually blamed Ukraine for this attack…”

“The Russian defence ministry says that the attack was carried out by Ukraine using US-made HIMARS rocket systems.”

“A spokesman for Moscow-backed separatists said Ukrainian forces attacked after the prisoners of war started talking about crimes conducted by their own military.”

Various news clips

So there was an explanation given by the Russians of what happened – but it doesn’t feel like a good use of our time to dwell on it for too long. What they said was that the Ukrainians fired a single, massively powerful rocket – a Himars rocket – which hit that building dead-centre and killed all those prisoners – their own soldiers. Without knocking the walls down, or blowing the roof off. 

Other people have gone to the trouble of lining up military experts to say that just doesn’t make sense. But the truth is, it wouldn’t make sense to a ten year-old. There are plenty of images around of what a Himars rocket does. It flattens things. It leaves a huge hole in the ground. None of that happened at Olenivka.

And then, just a few days after Rosemary di Carlo said the UN was going into Olenivka to investigate, I was in the middle of interviewing a man called Konstantyn Velichko – who we’ll hear from in a minute – when Nina WhatsApp’d me to say it was all off. The UN wasn’t getting in after all. We still don’t have a very good explanation for what changed.

But, actually, by then, a different story was already starting to emerge. Not about exactly what happened at Olenivka but from talking to ex-prisoners and politicians, by looking at what was said in public and on private Telegram channels, by piecing together events from the siege of Mariupol to the deaths at Olenivka: a story about how the ground can be prepared systematically for an atrocity to take place. 

How – even if here and now we don’t have the facts to say for sure that at least 53 people were murdered at Olenivka, and a war crime took place there – everything was done to create the conditions in which both those things could happen. So that a crime became likely. Maybe not inevitable but predictable.

I’m Ceri Thomas, and this is ‘A Crime In The Making’ – a Slow Newscast from Tortoise.

In normal times, it’s quite a good road from Mariupol to Olenivka. It’s 50 miles or so and you could drive it in not much more than an hour. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Mariupol was one of the first places it had in its sights. So the siege of Mariupol began, effectively, on the day of the invasion – 24 February – and within a week or so the city was completely surrounded. The horrors started to pile up.

“No relief in sight for the city of Mariupol where more than 100,000 people are still trapped…”

“It is a city without water, without access to food, without communications, without power, a city reduced to ruins by constant Russian bombardment, a city which cannot even properly bury its dead.”

“Staying alive in Mariupol has meant descending into basements and bomb shelters at night and then taking your chances outside during the day.”

Various news clips

By the 5 March, the International Red Cross was making more and more desperate pleas for hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped in Mariupol to be evacuated. And that’s where Konstyantyn comes in.

Konstyantyn: On 28 March, we arrived to the last block post in front of Mariupol.

He’s an IT guy volunteering on a bus plastered with Red Cross logos, going into Mariupol to pull people out. It’s a similar journey to ones he’s made before – but something changes this time.

Konstyantyn: Russian military asked us to stop our bus and, uh, show our documents. And they started to asking different, very strange questions – why we are evacuating people for the money, why we are changing, our documents with some military groups, and so on and so on and so on. And they even don’t want to, um, hear our answers.

So with automats – automatic rifles – pointing at him, Konstantyn is sent along that short road from Mariupol to Olenivka.

Konstyantyn: By the way, not just in first impression of Olenvika, uh, on, on our way, way to Olenvika, we have very, very many impressions. Uh, then they kick us, then they used, uh, they told us we are terrorist, then they, um, doesn’t give us food. Doesn’t give us water. But in Olenivka case was Anga. Uh, it was, uh, the most, uh, um, things I, uh, will remember, I think, uh, all my, all my next life, uh, we saw, almost broken buildings.

Uh, there was in very bad conditions. It was like a, I’m sorry, like a shit, uh, on the walls because, um, toilet was absolutely broken in, uh, in all colony. It was not working. And, uh, they always trying to, um, to make it, um, functional, but it’s that, uh, it’s not working.

Uh, no, no medicine, no food. One medic girl, also from the prisoners, uh, she was, uh, telling us guys, uh, all is okay. Um, your problems are finished. You, uh, uh, get into the safe place. And, uh, each, uh, two words she’s saying, uh, I was, uh, hearing screaming of people, uh, because they beat us.

They beat us by legs. They beat us by arms. Uh, they beat us by, rubber sticks. Uh, it’s like half of the meter. 

Uh, there was in very bad conditions.

Ceri, narrating: Olenivka was a dump. Broken toilets, no food, no medicine. None of what many of us would consider the essentials of life.

It was like shit on the walls. 

Ceri, narrating: The prisoners were beaten, tortured regularly.

They beat us by legs. They beat us by arms.

Ceri, narrating: Screams echoed through the buildings.

I was, uh, hearing screaming of people, uh, because they beat us.

Ceri, narrating: Konstantyn saw one man beaten to death.

I saw one of such cases byh my own eyes. They die because they kick them until death.

Ceri, narrating: It’s the beginning of April and Konstantyn is lost to the world in this squalid and lawless place. 

Early April was important to Vladimir Putin as well as Konstantyn. Up around Kyiv – far from Olenivka – the tide started to turn against the Russian invasion. As it went out, it revealed all kinds of horrors…

“Images at the weekend from the town of Bucha following the retreat of Russian forces show the bodies of civilians lying in the streets, Ukrainian human rights officials now say a mass grave near a church may contain as many as 300 bodies.”

Newsreader reporting on the atrocities of Bucha

Even before the war, hardliners in Moscow were demonising Ukrainians as Nazis and worse.

But now – with blood on the army’s nose around Kyiv, and the siege of Mariupol dragging on unforgivably – the language ratcheted up again. 

A fairly senior politician by the name of Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament – the Duma – called the defenders of Mariupol “animals in human form” and said they should be executed not taken prisoner.

The Russian embassy in London put out a tweet: saying Azov militants deserve execution not by firing squad but by hanging because they’re not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death. 

Twitter took that down eventually because it violated their rules on hate speech. But it was just the tip of the iceberg.

By the middle of April, there were just a few pockets of resistance left in Mariupol – and one main one: the giant steelworks at Azovstal. 

“And the Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian military and civilians are holed up by the 100s, is the site of the last stand there…”

“Despite being completely outnumbered, they continue to hold out here, in one of the largest steelworks in Europe. For now, the soldiers owe their survival to the gigantic network of underground tunnels where they’ve sheltered for weeks.”

News reports on the situation in Mariupiol

Some regular Ukrainian soldiers were holed up there. But the main fighting force was a notorious unit, the Azov Regiment. 

Alla: We didn’t speak, just text. Very careful how to ask about these deathly, dangerous things. Like torture. Did they have food, water, ammunition? He always answered yes, all is good. I never felt so close to him in my life.

Ceri, narrating: On the other end of Alla Samoilenko’s text messages was her son Ilya. An intelligence officer in the Azov Regiment; a giant of a man missing his left hand and his right eye after fighting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2015. 

Alla: He explained me something…

Ceri, narrating: When he talked to his mother, Ilya painted a very particular picture of the Azov Regiment.

Alla: …safety of their soldiers. This unit is built on the opposite to ex-USSR rules and traditions. Trying to incorporate foreign best practice. This possibility to build absolutely new army for Ukraine.

Ceri, narrating: That’s not how the rest of the world has seen Azov. Not always anyway. Back in 2014 a Guardian reporter spent time with Azov and found it riddled with far-right attitudes, even outright Nazi sympathies. 

Ceri: So Nina, the, Azov regiment, it it’s fair to say isn’t it that it’s had problems in the past with extremism?

Nina: I would say that it had some connections at the very beginning because it has been founded by a man with like far right ideology profile – Andriy Biletsky, who founded it in May of 2014. It was one of the volunteer battalions, uh, who wanted to defend Ukraine from the Russian invasion in 2014, there were a few such battalions and this battalion was incorporated into the ministry of internal affairs.

It was a special police battalion officially and, and Andriy Biletsky was in charge of that battalion for only a few months in 2015. In the Autumn, the government incorporated that battalion to the national guard. The battalion has got a new commander and they got rid of all people connected with far-right ideology from 2014 till 2017.

It was a small battalion at the beginning… there were about 900 people and during all this eight years of Russian occupation in the east of Ukraine, there were people who wanted to defend their land. It is the eastern part of Ukraine, there are mostly Russian speakers. There are a lot of Ukrainians, Russians Jewish and Crimean in this battalion who coexist. Normally, and they function as, as one unit. Uh, so I wouldn’t say it’s fair to say now that this is a far-right battalion.

Ceri: So it’s founded by a man with, with these far-right connections, but what, what does the Ukrainian government say about it now?

Nina: It’s a regular regiment of the national guard. It has a number amongst all other regiments in national guards. So they treat them as any other national guard regiment. That’s it. 

And in Ukraine, people hugely support Azov and call them heroes because we all seen the siege of Mariupol and their heroic resistance in the Azovstal plant. And probably you remember the Eurovision, uh, where the, uh, Ukrainian music band, uh, Claimed from the stage, please free Azov help Azov and it was widely supported in Ukraine. Now Ukrainian society supports Azov, and, uh, calls them heroes because of their resistance. 

Ceri: And because you’ve spent some time thinking about this recently, you, you are happy that Azov is a, has got rid of its extremist past that it is now a regular part of the regular army and that, and that people are right to think of them as heroes. 

Nina: Yes, absolutely. And I have to say that, uh, even European experts, uh, who studied Azov and its history, uh, they say that yes, there were far right people, but we cannot call them neo-Nazi there is a difference.

Ceri, narrating: However much Azov has been reformed, the fact that it was holding out against the Russian siege at the Azovstal steel plant is an important piece of the Olenivka jigsaw. 

All of those feverish, unfounded Russian allegations that Ukraine was a hotbed of Nazism had found a focus, in a regiment which did have an extremist past. If ever Russia were to single out a group of soldiers to murder, these guys would be top of the list.

Ilya: … we were accused as “para-military neo-nazi bandits” and all this blah blah blah bullshit, far-right radicals yes, but only one thing where we were radical is our primary order: defend your country… 

That’s Ilya, fronting up for Azov at a press conference on 8 May, 12 days before the fighters at Azovstal finally surrendered. He talked to his mum over those days, thinking he knew what was coming…

Alla: “It won’t be so tough. It won’t be so vulgar and brutal. I don’t know what gives him this faith. In a few months they might come back to Ukraine.”

So as the end of the siege approached, Alla was calm.

Alla: “I was quiet, and I was sure everything would be fine. Before Olenivka”.

Ceri, narrating: Before Olenivka.

In the days after they surrendered on 20 May – with Russia able to persuade itself that it had got its hands on some real Nazis; with politicians screaming for them to be executed – the Azov fighters were transported to the dirt and chaos of Olenivka. 

Konstantyn saw them arrive. And he felt a change.

Konstantyn: Yeah, atmosphere, camp was changed and because, and the first, uh, fact it was, two days before they arrived, uh, the Russian, uh, Federation flag was, uh, raised up, uh, above the colony and all, um, personal of the prison was changed to the Russians. They left only few so-called DPR guards there and all others was changed to Russian. Uh, so atmosphere was changed, was changed, um, in the moment.

Ceri, narrating: So, up till now, the locals had been in charge at Olenivka. Russian separatists as they’re usually called, from what Konstantyn mentioned as the DPR – the Donetsk People’s Republic. But now the Russians took over. And not just any Russians.

Konstantyn: But later we see very many Russians from FSB, uh, from Russian committed and, uh, very and very many other guys from different, uh, uh, Russian organisations because, uh, they was working with, with, uh, prisoners of war.

Ceri, narrating: Konstantyn says the FS-Bay – or the FSB as we’d pronounce it – was running the show now. Not regular prison guards, but the direct descendants of the KGB. You can feel another piece of the jigsaw at Olenivka clicking into place.

When the Azov fighters at the steelworks agreed to surrender, Russia gave guarantees they wouldn’t be mistreated or tortured. For a short while, those guarantees may have held…

And when you hear Konstantyn talk about the isolator, he’s talking about prisoners in solitary confinement – being tortured. 

Konstantyn: Russia uh, promised that, uh, prisoners of war, um, arrive from Azovstal, uh, will not be tortured. And, um, it was true, uh, for the first few weeks, but, um, later they find a way, uh, as usual.

So there was tortured but hidden. Uh, if before this, uh, moment they tortured, uh, prisoners of war, uh, on an open air. And, uh, anyone can see this, uh, with Azov they find, uh, another strategy. They just, um, take them to the insulator, uh, to the, uh, um, camera to the room, uh, for one man, uh, make, uh, very loud, uh, music and, uh, kick them.

So nobody, uh, almost nobody can see this and hear this.

Ceri, narrating: And Konstantyn noticed something else that I found fascinating. And important.

Konstantyn: Um, And they was, uh, they was very scary about Azov. They was thinking there like Superman, they was thinking they, uh, I, I can tell you that, uh, then they asked one or two, guys from Azov, uh, to get to the question for questioning. They take at least ten Russian SNA special soldiers who was guarding these two guys to the room for questioning. It was very scared of Azovstal.

Ceri, narrating: So, according to Konstantyn, the Russian guards were terrified of the Azov fighters. Even Spetsnaz soldiers – guys from elite units – made sure they outnumbered Azov prisoners heavily when they took them for questioning. 

Konstantyn: It’s uh, uh, how the government tell them it’s a, uh, very bad Nazis, uh, who just want to kill Russians, uh, who are using drugs. And, uh, many other things there was just hearing and even don’t think if it’s true or not. So there was scared of them.

They was thinking that, uh, that guys can just take arms and, uh, starting to kill them, but it’s not, uh, true. It’s, uh, the same guys as me and, uh, all others. I don’t know why they’re so scared.

Ceri, narrating: If you’re intent on committing a war crime against a group of people, history shows that it’s a pre-condition to dehumanise them. The Nazis used to paint their victims as sub-human. Konstantyn saw the Russians treating Azov fighters as if they were superhuman. But, oddly I think, the effect is the same: not human. 

Another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.

All of this, Konstantyn saw before he was suddenly released from Olenivka on 4 July and made his way slowly to Germany where I talked to him. 

What happened after he left is sketchy. We’ve tried every route we can think of to track down someone who’s been released since then, but we’ve drawn a blank. It seems most likely that nobody has been let out; certainly no one who could give an account of what happened on 29 July.

There’ve clearly been some messages sneaked out more recently from Olenivka to the outside world through the Telegram app. We haven’t been able to verify them, but what they say is that in late July prisoners were put to work converting an abandoned building, on the industrial side of the prison that Nina mentioned, about three or four hundred meters from where prisoners were normally kept. It was unusual because it had never happened before, and there didn’t seem to be any need for it.

As the end of July approached, about 200 members of the Azov Regiment – and, apparently, only Azov soldiers – were moved to the new barracks.

Around the same time, satellite images began to show what appear to be some large holes being dug in the earth, inside the prison fence. Nobody can say what for.

And that’s how things stood as darkness fell on 29 July. Until eleven o’clock when the prisoners in the regular barracks heard what’s been described to us as an explosion. And dozens upon dozens of prisoners of war died in the flames. 

Who lit the match, or primed the bomb that killed them, we don’t know. But look at everything that was said and done in the space of not much more than two months from the siege of Mariupol to the fire at Olenivka. The men who died were demonised, dehumanised, sent to a brutal camp run by security police, and set apart where nobody could see what would happen to them. 

At the end of all that, when you hear that they died it doesn’t sound surprising. It sounds obvious.

Evgeny Popov: My name is Evgeny Popov, E V G E N Y P O P O V and I’m MP member of parliament. And I’m a journalist in anchor on Russian state TV for many years, more than 20 years.

Ceri, narrating: I booked a call with one of President Putin’s highest profile public backers…

Ceri: And so one of the things I want to talk to you about is the use of language in this conflict, a nd where you draw a line and where others have drawn a line, and whether language is important in a war like this, because what it permits if the language is extreme I suppose…

Evgeny Popov: You just told me about the language of war, and its importnat, its really important. 

Ceri: my understanding is that you personally, um, justify and explain the invasion of Ukraine, um, because, because you see Russians and Ukrainians as effectively one people, is that right? 

Evgeny Popov: Oh, of course, it’s one people because my own father lives in Ukraine right now in, uh, territory, which is under, uh, Kiev’s control right now.

And of course, if you hear, uh, people in Russia, some officials, some authorities called, uh, uh, Azov Battalion as an animals, it’s close to truth. I can say to you because even if you read US law, US Congress, uh, have recognized,, Azov batallion, uh, around seven years ago as a, uh, neo-Nazi organization, neo-Nazi, they fascists really Nazis and, uh, of course we are not gonna talk with them.

Ceri: Let me just jump in there for a moment, because of course, many years ago, seven, eight years ago, I think the, Azov battalion, the, Azov regiment, um, Did have problems with extremists with neo-Nazis, but the Ukrainian government now says that it’s reformed. That it’s… it was a militia. It was volunteers. It’s now been brought into the regular army and those problems have been addressed. And, and what you are talking about is the history of, of Azov…

Evgeny Popov: No, no

Ceri: Where it came from and not what it’s like now…

Evgeny Popov: It’s completely, uh, lie, because it was official militia it wasn’t volunteers. It was… Azov battalion was uh, the part of the, uh, interior ministry for many, many years. And, uh, um, You can see Nazi symbols on their, uh, arms right now… you can hear Nazi, uh, slogans right now from them. And, uh, of course, uh, people who wants to divide my country for many parts are fascists and Nazis and they’ve been Nazi. Uh, they are still Nazi… There are many Nazis in Ukrainian army right now. 

Ceri: You said some of the Azov members… you were happy to describe them as nearly animals… but I guess what interests me is if you are happy to describe and your colleagues are happy to describe members of the Azov regiment, for example, as animals, then to me, it makes war crimes more likely because you don’t think you are dealing with human beings, you’re dealing with animals and you treat them differently.

Evgeny Popov: Um, it’s an emotion. When I called them, uh, near animals, of course they’re people, but they are war criminals. They must be punished for their war crimes. That’s it. 

Ceri: And if, I hear what you say about emotion. Um, but if, if you were in Olenivka, if you had been a guard looking after the members of the, Azov regimens who were there and you hear people in Moscow, members of the Duma, describing Azov as animals, that must affect the way you treat those people. 

Evgeny Popov: *Sighs* I just told you that I want to see a process, and I know, uh, a lot about what happened in, uh, Olenivka on July 29th, right? Um, it was a crime from Ukrainian army. It was a shelling, uh, from Ukrainian side by, uh, US made missiles, which is called, uh, Himars. I didn’t know why they did it because, uh, they have killed their own people, but I’m not impressed. 

Ceri: Let me come back to what you said about Olenivka because, um, you’ve been a correspondent in war zones, you know what war looks like, you know what weapons can do, the, the only images that I have seen of Olenivka are those that the the Russian authorities have released.

Evgeny Popov: Of course…

Ceri: So I’ve seen only…

Evgeny Popov: But you can go to do a film about it… if you want. 

Ceri: What the images show is a building that is all the walls are still standing where the beds inside are still arranged in, in neat rows. And yet the explanation is that a hugely powerful missile, which blows buildings to pieces landed and killed these people.

And, and it’s an explanation that doesn’t make any sense. Does it? 

Evgeny Popov: I am not a military expert. I’m a journalist and I am a politician. And I can tell you that we are invited. Any international organisation to inspect what happens in Olenivka 

Ceri: Well, the UN still hasn’t been allowed in. 

Evgeny Popov: No, it’s not true. We are waiting UN inspectors, but they can’t go. I don’t know why… we are, we are allowed them to go. Okay let’s go, come here and, uh, investigate. And, uh, we give you, we will give you everything. We will give you freedom of moving around prison camp, everything you want, because we know the truth. We don’t need to kill prisoners of war. I don’t know what can be the reason to kill them? 

Ceri: Well because you think they’re animals. 

Evgeny Popov: Hmm. You know, uh, they are war criminals and, uh, why we didn’t do it earlier. We need them alive. Because, uh, they should be punished by law by court not by American made missiles. 

Ceri, narrating: I didn’t expect to agree with Yevgeny Popov, but at least we agreed on something. We agreed that language matters.

A scientist will tell you that an intense fire can create a vacuum. And that’s what’s happened at Olenivka. No sound has escaped from there – no hard information – since July 29th.

 There’s still no official list – of any kind – of who was killed in the fire, or who was injured. Under the Geneva Convention, Russia’s duty-bound to produce one. And yes, they are still signatories. 

Alla, and all the other relatives of the soldiers who were there, are left feeding off scraps. Guessing. She thinks Ilya is still alive.

Alla: “Only rumours of volunteers who were friend in the middle of July. I asked and they said they saw him there. Illya was moved to an unknown place in the middle of June.”

In the end, whether the UN gets in or not, the truth about Olenivka will come out. Enough people survived that it can’t be buried forever. Olenivka may – I think, will – take its place alongside other atrocities on the list of war crimes committed in Europe in the last few decades. 

We thought that list had been closed forever in 1945.

And then, just three or four hours before this podcast was going to be released, there was a twist in the story. So this is an update.

Ceri: Nina – the news came to you quite late last night. What did you hear?

Nina: First of all i saw a lot of happy posts on facebook from my journalist and editors friends, who couldn’t believe it might happen, that 215 Ukranian prisoners of war, including 108 Azov members have beene exchanged for 55 Russian prisoners of war, and the most pro-russian Ukranian Politican, a good friend of Vladamir Putin who was accused of state treason. 

Ceri: In and amongst those 215 prisoners of war released, was…

Nina: Illya, but I saw no information about him on my Facebook so far. I immediately texted Alla, because she was worried he wasn’t on the list. And I just texted her and said ‘Alla, what about Illya? said she said yes Illya is exchanged as well. It was such a relief. She is in the US right now with two wives of Azov commanders. And one of them has been exchanged and moved to Turkey and the other one was not and all three of them say we are glad for those who have been exchanged now and earlier, but we need to remember that there were 2,000 people, and most of them are still in prison. 

Ceri: Alla is sure that he is out? 

Nina: Yes she is sure, and he let her know that he is going home. She posted in the morning that she is quite exhausted but happy. She has a big hope that they will meet at home soon. 

Ceri: One of the things we have been waiting for of course, is for prisoners who were held on 29 July to be released, so we can get a fuller picture of what happened on that night. Do you know any of the 215 people who came back yesterday were at Olenivka in late July?

Nina: I know that Mariana Momonovona, a pregnant Ukranian doctor was at Olenivka in this special isolator called prison in prison, but all people who we talk to while we made this podcast were released from Olenivka before 29 July. But we have to remember that these people are quite exhausted and stressed and maybe depressed. Access would be limited somehow. 

Nina, narrating: This Slow Newscast was written and presented by Ceri Thomas. The reporter was me, Nina Kuryata. The producer was Imy Harper. Sound design was by Tom Burchill.

How we got here

The Russian authorities have gone out of their way to make it difficult to find out how at least 53 prisoners of war burned to death in the prison camp at Olenivka in late July. Immediately after the fire happened, they blew smoke in the world’s eyes with an explanation which stood no scrutiny. Ever since, nobody has been released from the prison to contradict that account, and the UN hasn’t been allowed in to investigate. To an extent, the tactic has worked. Nobody can say with certainty that what happened at Olenivka was a grisly war crime, however deep suspicions run.

In the end the full truth will out, but the end could be a long time coming. Until then, the world is left to pore over the few images of the aftermath of the fire that Russia has released, and peering at satellite images of the prison to reconstruct what happened as best it can. It’s a necessary but unsatisfactory exercise so in this podcast we’ve tried to do something different. We set out to examine how parts of the Russian state, from politicians in Moscow to the security police on the ground in Olenivka, conspired through their language and their actions to create the conditions in which a war crime was likely. The manual for doing that was written by Nazi Germany. It’s chilling to see it deployed in Europe in the 21st Century. Ceri Thomas, Editor


Past reporting

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