LVIV, Ukraine — Olha Kerod was busy at work at a pharmacy on this western Ukrainian metropolis when she obtained a frantic name from her teenage daughter, Anyuta.
“My daughter stated, ‘Mother, one thing exploded in Olenivka!'” she says. “She stated they blew up a constructing, and many individuals died.”
Olenivka is a jail colony in jap Ukraine that is occupied by Russian-backed forces. Russia holds captured Ukrainian troopers there. On July 29, the day of the explosion, Olha’s husband Stanislav — she calls him Stas for brief — was in that jail.
“Everybody began calling me, texting me, asking, ‘Olha, Olha, what has occurred?'” she remembers. “However I did not know something about Stas.”
She came upon that not less than 50 imprisoned troopers had died and scores extra have been wounded in Olenivka. The grim information got here after grotesque movies appeared on social media exhibiting a Russian soldier castrating, then killing, an imprisoned soldier. She coped with the terrifying uncertainty of her husband’s captivity by pushing herself to remain optimistic.
“I did not cry, I did not panic,” she says. “I informed myself and my daughter: Do not consider something till we all know for certain.”
They assumed it was an evacuation
On the time, Olha had not seen Stas, 39, for 5 months, since Russian forces bombed and shelled the southeastern port metropolis of Mariupol, the place he served as a naval border guard.
The Russian siege of town left hundreds of troopers and civilians useless and almost each constructing broken. This spring, Stas joined a number of thousand troopers who barricaded themselves beneath Azovstal, a sprawling native steelworks manufacturing unit, in a remaining final stand. NPR reached Stas there by way of WhatsApp.
He despatched a number of voice memos describing the fixed bombing and shelling, how they have been working out of drugs and meals, and the way relieved he was that his family had escaped Mariupol. In Could, Stas and about 2,000 different troopers left Azovstal in what many assumed was an evacuation. As a substitute, they turned Russia’s prisoners.
“We’re being evacuated into captivity,” learn his final textual content to NPR.
A few weeks later, Olha meets NPR exterior the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic church in Lviv the place she usually prays.
“I pray for all of the troopers, not simply Stas,” says the 36-year-old, her voice breaking. “I’ll maintain praying till all of them come residence.”
Laurel Chor for NPR
Olha and Stas obtained married in 2005, a yr after assembly at a good friend’s marriage ceremony. He was candy, sensible and good-looking, she says, however taciturn, “a soldier to the core, who all the time retains his feelings inside.”
When he was away on responsibility, he all the time informed Olha the identical factor — “every part is OK, don’t be concerned.” At residence, he spent his time working round the home, cooking large meals with their daughter Anyuta and listening to ballads by the Ukrainian rock band Skryabin with Olha.
Laurel Chor for NPR
Stas returned to responsibility simply earlier than Russia invaded in February. He urged Olha to take Anyuta and go to western Ukraine, close to the NATO border with Poland. Olha resisted at first, till she discovered Anyuta weeping at night time as a result of her classmates had fled, some to the West, some to Russia. When the bombing started, Olha and Anhuta traveled throughout the nation to the western metropolis of Lviv. Quickly after, the Russian assault on Mariupol intensified, leaving hundreds useless and their metropolis in smoldering ruins.
Stas and the opposite troopers retreated to Azovstal — a metal plant that employed hundreds in Mariupol. The plant had an enormous community of underground shelters, the place the troopers and a whole lot of civilians holed up.
Olha discovered from information experiences that the Russians have been consistently bombing and shelling the metal plant. However Stas’ texts from the siege have been calm: “Every part is OK. Don’t be concerned.”
Stringer/AFP by way of Getty Photos
He despatched Olha pictures of himself and the opposite troopers making pancakes with the final of the flour and sugar stockpiled beneath the plant. Olha says he regarded like he had aged not less than 10 years.
An explosion that shocked the world
After the troopers turned Russian prisoners, Olha says she couldn’t contact Stas straight. She heard his voice solely as soon as, when he referred to as her from a quantity she did not acknowledge.
“He informed me that the situations contained in the jail have been horrible, that prisoners have been fed solely as soon as each two days, that hygiene was nonexistent,” she says. After that, she acquired a couple of brief texts, saying, “Every part’s advantageous, don’t be concerned.”
A prisoner change in late June obtained Olha’s hopes up. And despite the fact that Stas wasn’t among the many Ukrainian prisoners freed, she heard there can be extra exchanges.
Then, on July 29, got here the explosion.
The blast destroyed a warehouse the place prisoners had lately been moved. Photos of charred our bodies appeared on social media.
Ukraine stated Russian forces blew up the constructing to cowl up their torture of Ukrainian prisoners. Russia in flip accused Ukraine of killing its personal troopers to maintain them from speaking.
“I did not consider it, that such a factor might occur, that even the Russians might do such a factor,” she stated. “It most likely shocked the entire world.”
They did not know the place to go
Tons of of miles east, within the capital of Kyiv, Alla Samoilenko was additionally shocked.
The film casting director was determined for information on her 27-year-old son, Ilya.
“I’ve heard solely rumors,” she says. “It’s extremely laborious.”
Alla says Ilya joined the Ukrainian army in 2015, when he was finding out historical past at college. Russia’s takeover of Crimea and its assist for proxy fighters within the jap Donbas area satisfied him to hitch, his mom says.
He selected a regiment referred to as Azov, which had turn into legendary for blocking a earlier Russian assault on Mariupol in 2014. The regiment had its origins in a volunteer battalion based by a far-right nationalist, however consultants say a lot of the radicals left after the battalion turned a part of the Ukrainian military in 2015. The Kremlin calls the regiment Nazis, which infuriates Alla Samoilenko.
“Russia ought to take a look at itself when it speaks about Nazis,” she says. “It’s Russia who behaves in fascist method.”
She feared that the Russians would use the captured Azov fighters for propaganda. One Russian TV community confirmed a hospitalized soldier saying preventing the Russians “won’t ever result in something good.” The Russian presenter requested a number of others “how many individuals have you ever killed?” Some Russian politicians demanded that the Ukrainian troopers be tried for struggle crimes.
Alla spoke together with her son usually whereas he was barricaded beneath Azovstal, however she says she hasn’t heard from him since he was taken prisoner. She knew many troopers in Ilya’s regiment have been in Olenivka. She pleaded for assist from the Worldwide Committee for the Purple Cross, which beneath worldwide legislation ought to have entry to struggle prisoners. The ICRC’s representatives have been well mannered and “filled with mercy” in the course of the assembly, she says. However after that, she heard nothing.
“We need to make even very small steps to assist,” she says, describing the seek for info on her son. “However we do not know the place to go.”
Russian authorities have blocked the Purple Cross and different impartial investigators from getting into the positioning of the explosion. They as an alternative introduced in their very own consultants, who repeated Kremlin speaking factors that Ukraine and the U.S. have been accountable for the explosion.
We do not know the way to get solutions
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP by way of Getty Photos
In cities throughout Ukraine, the households of the imprisoned troopers took to the streets to demand info and justice.
Yaroslava Ivantsova, 48, protested within the central area of Kirovograd, the place she lives together with her daughter and grandchildren after escaping the autumn of Mariupol. She misplaced contact together with her 50-year-old husband, Nikolai Ivantsov, after the give up at Azovstal. Her daughter Viktoriia Lyashuk, 27, additionally had not heard from her husband, Oleksii, one other Azov fighter, since then.
“The Purple Cross contacted us as soon as, proper after they have been taken prisoner, and informed us that that they had been taken into Russian-held territory,” Yaroslava says. “And that was it.”
She met Nikolai when she was a freshman in school and he was a brand new army recruit. Even after many years collectively — and 4 kids, 4 grandchildren — Yaroslava says they have been inseparable. They gardened collectively, and he appreciated exhibiting her his assortment of outdated cash. “He’s one thing of an newbie archaeologist, with particular tools and maps, with all of the curiosity of a younger boy,” she says, smiling.
Like Alla Samoilenko, Yaroslava had learn that the Azov troopers have been within the Olenivka jail colony. For the reason that explosion, she and Viktoriia have spent hours scouring Russian social media channels for particulars on Nikolai and Oleksii.
A couple of days after the explosion, the Russian army revealed an inventory of useless and wounded. Ivantsova noticed her son-in-law’s identify on the listing of injured.
“We began cold-calling hospitals within the occupied territories to search out out which of them had taken the wounded,” she says, “however sadly we could not get any info. The hospitals solely stated they did not have any Ukrainian troopers there.”
Nikolai’s identify wasn’t on the listing. Neither was Alla Samoilenko’s son Ilya. They have not heard from the troopers.
“I imply, [Russia] can kill all of them, with none accountability,” Alla says. “And nobody on this planet can do one thing.”
The sensation of being forgotten
Again in Lviv, Olha Kerod obtained higher information. She lastly obtained a textual content from her husband, Stas.
“He wrote to say that he was alive,” she says. “That he misses us a lot. That he is drained and questioning if folks have forgotten about him and the opposite troopers.”
Ukrainians have not forgotten. Large banners devoted to the “Azovstal defenders” hold on administrative buildings across the nation. Olha lately posted a video on Fb of the troopers singing within the catacombs of Azovstal, earlier than the ultimate fall of their metropolis, trapped underground and but nonetheless free.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto by way of Getty Photos
Olha clings to the hope that there is perhaps one other prisoner change. “At some point the Russians say sure, the subsequent day they are saying no,” she says. “It is a limbo that we have been dwelling with for months. So we wait.”
The troopers of Azovstal who survived the explosion in Olenivka face an unsure destiny. The chief of a Russian proxy state in occupied jap Ukraine says there are plans to place Azovstal troopers on trial in Mariupol.
Ukraine’s Protection Ministry claims that the Russian troops, who now management Mariupol, are constructing cages for the imprisoned troopers within the metropolis’s philharmonic corridor, the place the trial will reportedly be held. Ukrainian authorities say the trial might begin any day.
Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Odesa, Ukraine, and Kateryna Korchynska from London.