oDR: Feature

Prisoners freed from Russian-run camp spark hope for missing Ukrainians

Volunteers released from the Russian-run Olenivka prison colony are uniting to share news of those still held captive

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Kateryna Semchuk
13 September 2022, 10.12am

Illustration: Anna Ivanenko / seri/graph

“Sometimes the first time relatives of prisoners hear news about them is from me,” Vitaliy Sytnikov told me.

Sytnikov is one of 22 Ukrainian volunteers detained by Russian forces while delivering humanitarian aid to Mariupol earlier this year and taken to the Olenivka colony, a Russian-controlled prison camp in Donetsk region.

The camp made global headlines after an explosion on 29 July killed at least 50 Ukrainian soldiers who’d been detained while defending the Azovstal steelworks.

Since being freed in early July, Sitnikov and 20 of the former volunteers have come together to set up a group on popular messaging app Telegram, where former captives can publish information about people they saw while in Russian custody. (Serhiy Tarasenko, the last of the 22 volunteers, is still held in Olenivka today.)

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“It’s nice that there is a benefit from our former situation,” Sitnikov added, referring to his captivity in Olenivka, which lasted more than three months.

The group offers hope to relatives who’ve struggled to obtain information about captives or missing soldiers from Ukrainian state institutions.

Since the Russian invasion began, the Ukrainian security and intelligence services have consistently urged the public not to reveal any information about people in Russian captivity. They warn that doing so could harm prisoner exchanges with Russian forces.

For relatives, the lack of knowledge is made even more agonising with the widespread reports of torture and inhumane treatment in Russian custody.

They are left to rely on more informal channels: the numerous Facebook and Telegram groups – such as the Olenivka group – where volunteers identify Ukrainian captives from Russian propaganda videos, compile lists of prisoners and answer relatives’ requests.

Missing loved ones

One volunteer, Kostiantyn Velychko, was held in Olenivka after being detained by Russian forces at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mariupol at the end of March. He estimates that between February and the beginning of July, around 5,500 Ukrainians – both prisoners of war and civilian detainees – have been through the camp, although some have since been transferred elsewhere.

During his three months in Olenivka, Velychko, a programmer before the Russian invasion, set up and ran a registry of captives on prison computers in the camp, which is based on the territory of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. This was a part of his forced labour duties, but also a “conscious way”, he said, of helping others in deadly circumstances.

Today, the 41-year-old uses the information he gathered on captives to assist their relatives and the Ukrainian state institutions working to free them.

“When a person knows that their loved one is alive, they are ready to move mountains,” Velychko said. “And this creates a more organised pressure on the [Ukrainian] state to work with people, [and on other hand] with prisoners of war.”

“We are not only helping people find out where their loved ones are, we are helping our society to change the situation for the better,” he added.

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Illustration: Anna Ivanenko / seri/graph

When he was detained, Velychko had been helping to evacuate Mariupol’s residents to Zaporizhzhia, 200 kilometres inland, and bringing humanitarian help to the besieged city. Another volunteer in Mariupol, Anna Vorosheva, was also detained by Russian forces and taken to Olenvika, where she spent three months.

When Vorosheva was finally released, she spent her first night of freedom writing to the relatives of people she’d met in the camp, to tell them that their loved ones were still alive.

Like Velychko, she had smuggled out a list of people to contact.

“We understood that these people had already knocked on all [possible] doors and we were the first to bring them information about their loved ones,” Vorosheva said.

Since being released, Velychko and Vorosheva have become public figures, each receiving dozens of calls and messages from people begging them to identify a relative or tell them about the conditions where their loved ones are being held. This is how the idea of a public Telegram group formed.

We are not only helping people find out where their loved ones are, we are helping our society to change the situation for the better

One woman, Kateryna, who did not share her last name for security reasons, told me she was able to use the fact that the former captives had seen her fiance, a border guard from Mariupol, in Olenivka to request that his status as a prisoner of war (POW) be confirmed by the Ukrainian Border Service.

But the Ukrainian authorities did not declare him a POW – Kateryna said they can only do so with evidence from a direct relative. This means he is still considered missing – and therefore cannot be listed for exchange.

Kateryna’s father, who also served in Ukraine’s border service, was also captured in April. She said she has contacted every institution that deals with POWs, but has been told only that her father, Dmytro, is alive and is thought to be captive by Russia, but his location is unknown. She will only find out that her father has been exchanged after it happens.

“You will be notified when your father is on Ukrainian territory, they told me,” Kateryna says.

Velychko said he believes volunteers feel obligated to assist relatives in their search for information on missing loved ones – and offer them emotional support.

Both Velychko and Vorosheva spoke of not knowing what was happening in the outside world during their time in prison, nor what was going to happen to them further. They had no idea whether Ukraine had forgotten about them or if their relatives had already buried them.

Velychko said his experience has led him to believe the Ukrainian authorities “cannot justify exactly how the process [of captives exchange] can be disrupted [by making information about captives public].”

“They have absolutely no arguments,” he said.

The volunteer also recalled how Ukrainian authorities asked former captives not to talk about torture and beatings in captivity.

As Velychko put it, “our state is simply afraid of a wave of negativity and unnecessary publicity about how they are ineptly working [on prisoner exchange].” He argues that there have been relatively few prisoner exchanges in comparison with the numbers of captives, calling the Ukrainian state’s efforts to get prisoners released a “complete failure”.

Ukraine’s Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories told openDemocracy that it does not comment on prisoners in Russian custody. The country’s military intelligence service does not respond to inquiries about captives exchange.

Collecting information on POWs

When Velychko wound up at Olenivka, he was initially held in a cell in horrendous conditions.

“In the first two weeks, 22 of us were rotting in a 15-square metre cell,” Velychko said. Sometimes the number of captives in a cell rose to 40-50 people over a two-day period, he added.

The cell was practically empty, with the bunks torn down. People slept in shifts, like sardines in a can on the concrete floor or on a metallic table. The toilet was constantly clogged, it never flushed. The walls had fungus on them, as well as mould and damp.

“After about three or four days we all started to get sick,” Velychko said. “We were given one two-litre bottle of really bad water and a piece of bread per day.”

To get a transfer to a better cell in Olenivka’s barracks, Velychko had to pay a bribe. The prison administration in the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) allowed Velychko to phone home to ask his relatives to find somebody in Donetsk who could bring a laptop, a printer and some office equipment to the prison. This was the first time in three weeks Velychko told his family that he was alive and where he was.

“The call home cost me $1,000,” Velychko said, noting that every prisoner who was transferred to the barracks paid a bribe. Once in the barracks, getting the prison registry job was simple, Velychko said. The DNR guards were doing a very poor job of the administrative work, often miscounting prisoners and keeping unorganised lists of names on bits of paper. Once Velychko mentioned his career as a programmer, the guards told him to take over their work – this was typical in Olenivka, where captives did the majority of the work.

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Illustration: Anna Ivanenko / seri/graph

While they were forced to work from 6am to 8pm, Velychko said he and his friends were able to collect huge amounts of information about their fellow prisoners – despite having little hope that he would ever leave Olenivka.

“Firstly, [this work] allowed us to improve our conditions,” said Velychko, explaining how workers had free movement around the prison, better food, and opportunities to steal from guards.

“Secondly, it allowed us to help dozens of people in the colony. We had a very well-coordinated team of volunteers [in the colony], and everyone [secretly] performed their own task.”

Witnessing torture

Unlike POWs, civilian captives were not subject to torture in Olenivka colony, Velychko said – though he was still beaten after being detained and when he was admitted to the colony.

But since Velychko and the other volunteers with jobs were allowed to move freely in the prison colony, they saw directly how Ukrainian POWs were tortured and beaten, including, on several occasions, to death.

These memories are sometimes difficult to bear, and even harder to tell relatives about.

Captives were beaten on arrival, when they were also subjected to several hours of torture in a seated position. People were also beaten before the daily interrogations, and any time wardens “didn’t like something”, Velychko said.

The extensive torture of prisoners began, he said, after 2,700 prisoners arrived from Azovstal, the now-famous last hold-out of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol. Representatives from the Investigative Committee of Russia, and the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office interrogated the prisoners, but the torture was done by DNR guards.

Women, Vorosheva said, were not tortured or beaten, but were kept in a separate cell in a disciplinary block, where the conditions they faced depended entirely on the guards’ mood. Women who were kept in the same building as a torture room had to endure the constant sound of people being beaten until they were unconscious.

When the steps fell silent, then we could hear blows and screams, [the sounds of] bodies falling, pleadings for [the torture to] end

“We froze and became tense every time we heard people being called from the cells. It was clear from their footsteps that they were going to the end of the corridor,” Vorosheva remembered.

“And when the steps fell silent, then we could hear blows and screams, [the sounds of] bodies falling, pleadings for [the torture to] end. Psychologically it felt like it lasted forever but it could actually last only a few minutes.”

The volunteers also saw how the new prisoners were psychologically pressured into giving fabricated testimonies, in which they said they had subjected civilians at Azovstal to inhumane treatment – a war crime.

Velychko believes these testimonies will be used against the soldiers in future ‘public trials’.

When asked how it is possible that he and other volunteers were allowed to walk free from Olenivka given their knowledge about the prisoners and crimes committed there, Velychko said: “We ourselves were shocked.”

Illustrations courtesy of Anna Ivanenko and seri/graph studio.

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