Screams of tortured soldiers, overcrowded cells, inhumane conditions, a regime of intimidation and murder. Inedible porridge, no communication with the outside world and days marked with a homemade calendar on a box of tea.
According to a prisoner who was there, this is what the conditions are like in Olenivka, the infamous detention center outside Donetsk where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers died in a horrific episode in Russian captivity late last month.
Anna Vorosheva – a 45-year-old Ukrainian entrepreneur – gave a poignant account to the Observer of her time in prison. She spent 100 days in Olenivka after being detained in mid-March at a checkpoint of the pro-Russian People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) in eastern Ukraine.
She had tried to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, her home city, which had been besieged by the Russian army. The separatists arrested her and drove her in a packed police van to prison, where she was held until early July on charges of “terrorism”.
Now recovering in France, Vorosheva said she had no doubts that Russia “cynically and deliberately” murdered Ukrainian prisoners of war. “We’re talking about absolute evil,” she said.
The fighters were blown up in a mysterious and devastating explosion on July 29. Moscow claims Ukraine killed them with a US-made precision-guided Himars missile. However, satellite images and independent analysis suggest they were destroyed by a powerful bomb detonated from inside the building.
Russia says 53 prisoners have been killed and 75 injured. Ukraine has been unable to confirm these figures and has requested an investigation. The victims were members of the Azov battalion. Until their surrender in May, they had defended the Mariupol steel factory in Azovstal, underground.
A day before the blast, they were transferred to a separate room in the camp’s industrial zone, some distance from the dingy two-storey concrete block where Vorosheva shared a cell with other female prisoners. Video shown on Russian state television showed charred bodies and twisted metal bunk beds.
“Russia didn’t want them to stay alive. I’m sure some of the “dead” in the explosion were already corpses. It was a convenient way to declare that they had been tortured to death,” she said.
Male prisoners were regularly taken from their cells, beaten and locked up again. “We heard their screams,” she said. “They played loud music to muffle the screams. Torture happened all the time. Investigators joked about it and asked inmates, “What happened to your face?” The soldier would reply, “I fell,” and they would laugh.
“It was a demonstration of power. The prisoners understood that something could happen to them, that they could easily be 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 into a prison in the 1980s and later abandoned. The DNR began using it earlier this year to house hostile civilians.
Every day, prisoners arrived and left the camp, 20 km southwest of occupied Donetsk, Vorosheva told the Observer. About 2,500 people were held there, with numbers reaching as high as 3,500-4,000, she estimated. There was no running water or electricity.
The atmosphere changed when some 2,000 Azov fighters were brought in on the morning of May 17, she said. Russian flags were raised and the DNR colors removed. Guards were initially wary of the new inmates. Later, they spoke openly about how they would brutalize and humiliate them, she said.
“We were often called Nazis and terrorists. One of the women in my cell was an Azovstal medic. She was pregnant. I asked if I could give her my food ration. I was told, ‘No, she’s a murderer’. The only question they ever asked me was, ‘Do you know any Azov soldiers?’”
Conditions for the female prisoners were grim. She said they were not tortured but were given very little food – 50 grams of bread for dinner and sometimes porridge. “It was suitable for pigs,” she said. She suspected that the prison warden had funneled money for meals. The toilets overflowed and the women were not given any sanitary products. The cells were so overcrowded that they slept in shifts. “It was tough. People were crying, worried about their children and families.” When asked if the guards ever showed any sympathy, she said that 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. It was like an alcoholic who says he drinks vodka because his wife is not well.
“The philosophy is, ‘Everything is terrible for us, so everything must be terrible for you’. It’s all very communist.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called the explosion “a deliberate Russian war crime and a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war”. Last week, his office and Ukraine’s defense ministry provided details of clues they believe point to the Kremlin’s culpability.
Citing satellite images and intercepted phones and intelligence, they said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group carried out the killings in conjunction 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 blast.
The operation was approved at the “highest level” in Moscow, they claim. “Russia is not a democracy. The dictator is personally responsible for everything, be it MH17, Bucha or Olenivka,” an intelligence source said. “The question is, when will Putin admit his atrocities.”
One version of events under investigation by Kiev is that the blast may have been the result of in-service rivalry between the Russian FSB and the GRU’s military intelligence wings. The GRU negotiated Azovstal’s surrender with its Ukrainian military counterpart, sources suggest — a deal the FSB may have been eager to screw up.
The soldiers should have been protected by the assurances Russia gave to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross that the Azov detainees would be treated properly. Since the blast, the Russians have not allowed international representatives access to the site.
Vorosheva said the Red Cross was allowed to enter the camp in May. She said the Russians took the visitors to a specially renovated room and did not allow them to talk to the prisoners on their own. “It was a show,” she said. “We were asked to tell us the size of our clothes and the Red Cross would hand out something. Nothing has reached us.”
Other detainees confirmed Vorosheva’s version of events, saying that Azov soldiers were treated worse than civilians. Dmitry Bodrov, a 32-year-old volunteer, told the Wall Street Journal the guards took anyone they suspected of wrongdoing to a special camp disciplinary unit for assault.
They emerged limping and moaning, he said. Some prisoners were forced to crawl back to their cells. Another inmate, Stanislav Hlushkov, said a prisoner who was beaten regularly was found dead in solitary confinement. Nurses put a sheet over his head, loaded him into a morgue truck and told fellow inmates that he had “committed suicide.”
Vorosheva was released on July 4. It was, she said, a “miracle.” “The guards read out the names of those who would be released. Everyone listened in silence. My heart jumped when I heard my name. I packed my things, but didn’t celebrate. There were cases where people were on the list, got out and came back.”
She added: “The people who run the camp represent the worst aspects of the Soviet Union. They could only behave well if they thought no one was looking.”