Screams of tortured soldiers, overflowing cells, inhumane conditions, regime of intimidation and murder. Inedible porridge, no communication with the outside world, and days marked with a homemade calendar written on a tea box.
This, according to a prisoner who was there, is what conditions are like inside Olenivka, the notorious detention center outside Donetsk where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers burned to death in a horrific episode late last month while in Russian captivity.
Anna Vorosheva, a 45-year-old Ukrainian businesswoman, gave a harrowing account to the Observer of his time in jail. She spent 100 days in Olenivka after being detained in mid-March at a checkpoint run by the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine.
She had been trying to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, her hometown, which the Russian army had besieged. The separatists detained her and took her in a packed police van to the prison, where she was held until early July on charges of “terrorism”.
Now recovering in France, Vorosheva said she had no doubt Russia “cynically and deliberately” killed the Ukrainian prisoners of war. “We’re talking about absolute evil,” she said.
The fighters blew up on July 29 in a mysterious and devastating explosion. Moscow claims Ukraine killed them with a US-made precision-guided Himars rocket. Satellite imagery and independent analysis, however, suggest that they were destroyed by a powerful bomb detonated from inside the building.
Russia says 53 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded. Ukraine has been unable to confirm these figures and has called for an investigation. The victims were members of the Azov battalion. Until their surrender in May, they had defended Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, holding out underground.
A day before the explosion, they were moved to a separate area in the industrial zone of the camp, some distance from the grimy two-story concrete block where Vorosheva shared a cell with other prisoners. Video shown on Russian state television revealed charred bodies and twisted metal bunk beds.
“Russia did not want them to stay alive. I’m sure some of those ‘dead’ in the explosion were already corpses. It was a convenient way of accounting for the fact that they had been tortured to death,” she said.
Male prisoners were regularly taken from their cells, beaten, and then locked up again. “We heard their cries,” he said. “They played loud music to cover up the screaming. The torture happened all the time. Investigators joked about it and asked inmates, ‘What happened to your face?’ The soldier replied: ‘I fell’, and they laughed.
“It was a show of power. The prisoners understood that anything could happen to them, that they could be easily killed. A small number of the Azov boys 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 converted in the 1980s into a prison and then abandoned. The DNR began using it earlier this year to harbor enemy civilians.
The captives arrived and departed every day from the camp, 20 kilometers southwest of occupied Donetsk, Vorosheva told the Observer. About 2,500 people were detained there, with the number sometimes rising to 3,500-4,000, he estimated. There was no running water or electricity.
The atmosphere changed when some 2,000 fighters from Azov arrived by bus on the morning of May 17, he said. Russian flags were raised and DNR colors were removed. The guards were initially wary of the new prisoners. They later talked openly about how they were going to be brutalized and humiliated, he 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 her if she could give her my food ration. They told me: ‘No, she is a murderer.’ The only question they asked me was: ‘Do you know any soldiers from Azov?’”
The conditions of the prisoners were bleak. She said that they were not tortured but that they received hardly any food: 50 g of bread for dinner and sometimes porridge. “It was pig-friendly,” she said. She suspected that the prison director diverted the money allocated for meals. The toilets overflowed and the women did not receive sanitary products. The cells were so crowded that they slept in shifts. “It was difficult. People were crying, worried about their children and their families.” Asked if the guards ever showed any sympathy, she said an anonymous person once left them a bottle of shampoo.
According to Vorosheva, the camp staff were brainwashed by Russian propaganda and considered the Ukrainians to be Nazis. Some were local villagers. “They blamed us for the fact that their lives were terrible. He was like an alcoholic who says he drinks vodka because his wife is useless.
“The philosophy is: ‘Everything is horrible for us, so everything should be horrible for you.’ It’s all 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 the Ukrainian Defense Ministry gave details of the clues they say point to the Kremlin’s guilt.
Citing satellite images and wiretaps and intelligence, they said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group carried out the killings in collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s FSB spy agency. They point to the fact that a row of graves was dug in the colony a few days before the explosion.
The operation was approved at the “highest level” in Moscow, they allege. “Russia is not a democracy. The dictator is personally responsible for everything, whether it’s MH17, Bucha or Olenivka,” an intelligence source said. “The question is: when will Putin acknowledge his atrocities?”
One version of events being 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 military, sources suggest, a deal the FSB may have wanted to ruin.
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 treated properly. Since the explosion, the Russians have refused to give international representatives 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 speak independently with the prisoners. “It was a show,” she said. “They asked us to give our clothing size and we said that the Red Cross would deliver something. Nothing came to us.”
Other detainees confirmed Vorosheva’s version of events and said Azov soldiers were treated worse than civilians. Dmitry Bodrov, a 32-year-old volunteer worker, told the Wall Street Journal guards would take anyone suspected of misconduct to a special disciplinary section of the camp for beatings.
They limped out groaning, he said. Some captives were forced to crawl back to their cells. Another prisoner, Stanislav Hlushkov, said an inmate who was regularly beaten was found dead in solitary confinement. Orderlies covered his head with a sheet, loaded him into a mortuary van, and told his fellow inmates that he had “committed suicide.”
Vorosheva was released on July 4. She was, she said, a “miracle.” “The guards read the names of those who were to be released. They all listened in silence. My heart jumped when I heard my name. I packed my things but I didn’t celebrate. There were cases where people were on the list, got out, and then came back.”
She added: “The people running the camp represent the worst aspects of the Soviet Union. They could only be on their best behavior if they thought no one was watching.”