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A crime in the making: Russia’s atrocities

A crime in the making: Russia’s atrocities

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

A full transcript will be available later today. Apologies for the delay.

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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