On July 29, 2022, an explosion in one of the barracks of Olenivka prison in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine killed about 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) and injured 100 more. The Russian Defense Ministry, which was holding the prisoners, is the only source on the casualty figures.
This deadly incident requires an in-depth and impartial investigation. Yet Russian authorities and their proxies have refused to provide access and security guarantees to a United Nations-appointed fact-finding team established last summer, and the mission was disbanded in January. Russian authorities claim the blast was caused by a HIMARS missile launched by Ukraine. But the UN high commissioner for human rights said in a statement this week that survivor interviews and analysis of other information shows the explosion “was not caused by a HIMARS rocket.”
The survivors and victims’ families are still seeking closure. Olya told me that the body of her partner, Serhiy, a 25-year-old military instructor, was one of 36 bodies transferred by the Russians that Ukrainian authorities have been able to identify. Serhiy, along with nearly 200 other POWs from the Azov Brigade, had been relocated to the barrack just one day before the explosion. Serhiy’s remains were returned to his family in October, after Ukrainian authorities were able to match DNA samples from the remains.
Former POWs and their relatives described the ill-treatment, lack of medical care, and poor living conditions at the Olenivka prison. Kostiantyn, who was released during a prisoner exchange in September, said that those who were injured in the explosion received no medical assistance from their captors. “Those injured helped others with everything they had at hand,” he said. “Doctors among the captives were allowed to help, but it was not enough.”
Kostiantyn said that Russian security officers and prison staff beat the inmates, subjected them to electric shock, and put them in painful stress positions. He also said that the barracks were overcrowded, and the inmates didn’t have regular access to water, sanitation, and electricity.
The explosion at Olenivka prison raises many questions that one year on have still not been answered. Since Russia has not met its obligations under the Geneva Conventions to impartially investigate the incident as a possible war crime, it should do so by turning over the investigation to an independent international body. Genuine justice first requires a genuine investigation.