After a deadly jail blast, Ukrainians want answers about war prisoners held by Russia

by | Aug 29, 2022 | Top Stories

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This photo taken from video shows a view of a destroyed barrack at a prison in Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, on July 29. Ukrainian officials say they are struggling to establish the truth surrounding the explosion in a prison that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war captured by the Russians following the fall of Mariupol.

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LVIV, Ukraine — Olha Kerod was busy at work at a pharmacy in this western Ukrainian city when she got a frantic call from her teenage daughter, Anyuta. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, something exploded in Olenivka!'” she says. “She said they blew up a building, and many people died.” Olenivka is a prison colony in eastern Ukraine that’s occupied by Russian-backed forces. Russia holds captured Ukrainian soldiers there. On July 29, the day of the explosion, Olha’s husband Stanislav — she calls him Stas for short — was in that prison. “Everyone started calling me, texting me, asking, ‘Olha, Olha, what has happened?'” she recalls. “But I didn’t know anything about Stas.” She found out that at least 50 imprisoned soldiers had died and scores more were wounded in Olenivka. The grim news came after gruesome videos appeared on social media showing a Russian soldier castrating, then killing, an imprisoned soldier. She coped with the terrifying uncertainty of her husband’s captivity by pushing herself to stay optimistic. “I didn’t cry, I didn’t panic,” she says. “I told myself and my daughter: Don’t believe anything until we know for sure.”

They assumed it was an evacuation At the time, Olha had not seen Stas, 39, for five months, since Russian forces bombed and shelled the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where he served as a naval border guard. The Russian siege of the city left thousands of soldiers and civilians dead and nearly every building damaged. This spring, Stas joined several thousand soldiers who barricaded themselves beneath Azovstal, a sprawling local steelworks factory, in a final last stand. NPR reached Stas there via WhatsApp. He sent several voice memos describing the constant bombing and shelling, how they were running out of medicine and food, and how relieved he was that his own family had escaped Mariupol. In May, Stas and about 2,000 other soldiers left Azovstal in what many assumed was an evacuation. Instead, they became Russia’s prisoners. “We are being evacuated into captivity,” read his last text to NPR. A couple of weeks later, Olha meets NPR outside the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic church in Lviv where she often prays. “I pray for all the soldiers, not just Stas,” says the 36-year-old, her voice breaking. “I will keep praying until they all come home.”

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Olha Kerod, the wife of a Ukrainian soldier who was captured by Russian forces in Mariupol, poses in front of the Church of Sts. Olha and Elizabeth, where she often prays, in Lviv, Ukraine, on July 18. “I pray for all the soldiers, not just Stas,” her husband, she says. “I will keep praying until they all come home.”

Laurel Chor for NPR

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Laurel Chor for NPR

Olha and Stas got married in 2005, a year after meeting at a friend’s wedding. He was sweet, smart and handsome, she says, but taciturn, “a soldier to the core, who always keeps his emotions inside.”
When he was away on duty, he always told Olha the same thing — “everything is OK, don’t worry.” At home, he spent his time working around the house, cooking big meals with their daughter Anyuta and listening to ballads by the Ukrainian rock band Skryabin with Olha.

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