Last week’s attack on a detention camp in Russian-held Ukraine that killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners, has prompted global outrage and fierce accusations. But all Mariia Kozlova wants to know is what happened to her husband.
“I feel terrible from all the inability to understand what’s going on,” Ms. Kozlova, 24, said as she stood in the warm sunshine in a Kyiv park on Sunday. “We don’t have any clear information.”
Ms. Kozlova and her husband had only been married for seven months when he and roughly 2,400 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to Russian forces last May after holding out in Mariupol’s Azovstal iron and steel works for weeks. About 1,000 fighters were taken to a prison camp in Olenivka, a town in Russian-occupied Donetsk.
On Friday, Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling had hit the camp and killed at least 40 prisoners and injured 130. The separatists said the Ukrainians had bombed the facility with U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, in order to stop the prisoners from testifying about war crimes. Russian officials later produced a list of 50 prisoners who had died and 73 who had been wounded.
The Ukrainian military vigorously denied bombing the camp and said Russia had carried out the attack to kill off the prisoners. “It was a deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” said Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Officials from both countries have called for the International Committee of the Red Cross to conduct an investigation, but so far ICRC representatives have not been given access to the site.
Ms. Kozlova’s husband, a member of the National Guard, wasn’t on either list produced by the Russians but she didn’t trust the information anyway. “We don’t use those lists as a basis, they aren’t credible,” she said.
The last time she heard from her husband was through a text he sent on May 17, just as he was leaving the steel plant. “He said that he was fine, that he was alive,” she recalled.
While she believes he was taken to the Olenivka camp, she can’t be entirely certain. And now the bombing has left her more worried than ever. “It is more terrible than during the Azovstal siege,” she said. “It’s madness. In the eyes of the whole world they have been killed and nothing is being done.”
Before the war, she worked as a lawyer in Mariupol’s city council. But she had to leave the city in April when fighting intensified and now she lives with family in Kyiv and is out of work. She thinks constantly about her husband and believes that the only solution is a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. There was one in June, but only 144 prisoners from each side were swapped.
Hanna Naumenko has an even greater concern. Her fiancé, Dmytro Danilov, was a commander in the Azov Regiment, a battle-hardened group formed in 2014 when war broke out in eastern Ukraine with the separatists. The controversial unit has past ties to far-right ideology and it has become a key part of Russia’s justification for the invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed the war as a bid to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, and the Azov fighters have featured prominently in Russia’s propaganda. Some Russian lawmakers have called for the death penalty for Azov soldiers. Over the weekend, Russia’s ambassador to Britain caused a furor by saying on Twitter that the “Azov militants deserve execution, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they’re not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death.”
Nearly all of the 1,000 soldiers taken to Olenivka are believed to be from the Azov Regiment, including Mr. Danilov, 29, who has been with the unit since its inception.
Ms. Naumenko, 25, hasn’t heard from her fiancé since May 20, when they had a short phone call as he walked out of the plant. Since then, she’s had only snippets of information. He also isn’t on the Russian lists, but that’s little comfort to her and she knows several people who have been named.
“We can’t deny those lists because they are the only source of information we have and they are basing that information on something,” she said. “But also, we can’t verify this information without the help of a third party.”
She understands that Mr. Danilov and the other Azov fighters have been targeted by the Russians. She says the soldiers probably didn’t do enough over the years to dispel their far-right image.
“When you believe you are doing the right thing and protecting your country, you don’t spend extra time debunking those propagandist stories,” she said. “And now we see that it would have been worth it to spend more time on that because the Russians aggressively use it against them.”
She once had a good job, working as a project manager for a company in Mariupol, and had plans to marry Mr. Danilov when the war ended. Now, she’s lost almost everything and she’s spending most of her time in Kyiv offering support to other POW wives and relatives. “All we can do is wait and pray,” she said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.