Espreso. Global

"Honorable or murderous captivity": how soldiers were leaving Azovstal and what happened to them two years later

16 May, 2024 Thursday

May 16 marks the second year since the defenders of Ukraine began to withdraw from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol


The so-called evacuation or "honorable captivity" lasted from May 16 to 21. Prior to that, since February 24, 2022, they had been heroically fighting for Mariupol, repelling the Russian occupation forces. According to the relatives of the prisoners themselves, this captivity did not give anyone any privileges. On the contrary, the soldiers were executed en masse. 

Espreso talked to the relatives of the captured Azov soldiers and asked them what they said in the last days before their captivity, what their mood was like, what they were promised, and whether their relatives have any news from them.

Information about the prisoners is taken from Russian social media

The exact number of people who have left Azovstal is unknown, but it is estimated to be more than 2,500. As of the beginning of the exchanges in 2024, it was known that more than 1,900 military personnel from Azovstal remained in captivity. Statistics on exchanges are closed and even relatives do not have accurate information. It is also unknown how many died. Relatives cannot bury the deceased because there are no bodies. Many families are still looking for them.

Representatives of the Olenivka Community organization say that they usually hear the standard phrase "work is ongoing" when it comes to the release of those who remain in captivity, but when there is an escalation at the front and no exchanges, the unstable situation at the front becomes the main argument.

Anna is the wife of Oleh Lobov, a soldier seriously wounded in Olenivka. She has not heard from her husband for two years. The last text message was of a private nature, not a word about captivity.

"My husband was on duty long before the full-scale invasion. On February 24, in the afternoon, he suggested that they would probably be in Mariupol. I didn't ask any more questions for obvious reasons. We rarely communicated by phone, it could be one text message from him or his friends. If we managed to write something, it was a private message asking "how are we?". There was no point in asking how he was. His answer was a single word - "okay". I remember a phrase he wrote to me after the first two weeks of the full-scale invasion, saying that all his clothes were already too big for him," the woman says.

He says that this sufficiently explained both the food and the situation in general.

"On the night of May 17, before they left Azovstal, he sent me a text message, also of a personal nature. Nothing was written about his withdrawal. He sent the message late at night, I was awake, and I wrote back to him to ask if they were really going to be taken prisoner, but he didn't read it and hasn't written back since," Anna recalls.

At the end of June 2022, the woman learned from a prisoner of war that her husband was in Olenivka, and then a terrorist attack took place. Russia published lists, and Oleh was on the list of dead and wounded. On August 17 of the same year, the occupiers posted a video from the hospital where he gave an interview. The Russians asked him about the events of that terrible night.

How did preparations for leaving Azovstal go?

Ksenia Prokopenko lost her brother. At the time of his death in captivity, the soldier was only 21 years old. Ihor Prokopenko joined Azov in January 2022. Before that, he served in the National Guard. He wanted to serve in Azov because he liked the battalion's ideology and had many friends there. On February 24, 2022, his family learned that Ihor was in Mariupol.

"We communicated very rarely during the whole time, and it was for 3-4 minutes. He never said that they didn't have enough food or water, that there were many wounded and not enough medicine. We learned about this from the news. Instead, he said that everything was fine. 

The last time we talked was on April 21, 2022, and it was clear to both of us that a military de-blockade of Mariupol was simply impossible. Ihor mentioned that he might have to negotiate with the Russians to get out. But at the same time, he emphasized that he would not go into captivity and would rather blow himself up with a grenade. From this I understand that they were not told about captivity, but rather about evacuation as an honorable way out of Azovstal by agreement," says Ihor's sister.

At the time of his release, Ihor's family did not know what happened to him or whether he was captured, as they had no contact with him for more than two weeks. They also did not receive any information afterward. And on July 29-30, when the first news about the attack in Olenivka appeared, the Russians posted lists of the dead, including Ihor.

"According to the Ukrainian examination, there is confirmation that he died. Now we are still doing a second examination by an independent commission on missing persons and waiting for the results," the woman said.

Guarantors of "honorable captivity" deny their obligations

The fact that the soldiers would be provided with international security guarantees during their capture was discussed from the very beginning of the talks about captivity. Ksenia Prokopenko, referring to media reports at the time, recalls that the ICRC and the UN had made such commitments. But at a meeting in Geneva, attended by relatives of the captives, it turned out that they were not present every day during the evacuation.

"There was a guarantee from the Red Cross that they would be present during the evacuation. And they were supposed to verify all our prisoners from the plant and make sure that Russia did not kill or shoot the prisoners. However, when we had the first trip of our community to Geneva and met with representatives of the Red Cross Committee, it turned out that they were not present on all days during the evacuation. That is, it lasted from May 16 to 20, and they were not there on the 16th. The reason was that they did not have time to coordinate their representatives and get them to the site. That is, they simply did not have time to prepare for the evacuation," Ksenia adds and emphasizes that at this stage, the Red Cross's work was already a failure.

In the information disseminated in May 2022 by state institutions (in particular, it was made public by the President of Ukraine in his interview) with a list of mediators, in addition to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN, whose representatives now deny the alleged mission entrusted to them, Turkey, Switzerland, France, and Israel were among the guarantors. 

"While we could meet with representatives of the ICRC and the UN and they denied that they were guarantors or took on any obligations, we cannot ask our president and representatives of other countries. If there were indeed guarantor countries, if there were any negotiations, then only they know the answers to numerous questions. Because two years have passed, and the promises made have not been fulfilled," says Anna Lobova.

Russia dominates information war

A close friend of Oleksandra Mazur also died in a barracks in the Olenivka colony during the so-called "honorable captivity". She, along with other relatives, actually created the Olenivka Community organization. The woman began to engage in public activities related to the massacre.

"Are captives remembered? This is very difficult. Because in fact, very few people in the West know that the battle for Mariupol is a unique battle of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and even more so that there was a mass execution in Olenivka. This information is presented episodically. We need to tell that we are talking about real people with real life stories. In general, the Russian-Ukrainian war is losing its relevance in the media because new events are taking place in the world: wars, local conflicts. Of course, Ukraine holds certain positions in the global media, but there is a noticeable decline in interest," Mazur suggests.

In this aspect, Russia wins. In particular, if we talk about the wording in the US legislation regarding Azov, which prevents the brigade from receiving Western weapons.

"On the Ukrainian side, obviously, less work is being done, because the results are not visible. "Azov, as a radical organization, can be included in any lists only when Russia influences their formation. So, Russia's work is effective. It was Russia that made it possible for Azov to be banned from receiving weapons from the United States," noted Mazur.

Empty promises from Ukrainian authorities

The activist also points out that government representatives are not doing enough to communicate not only with international partners, but also with relatives of the prisoners. At the beginning of this year, representatives of their community had agreements at the highest level to travel and speak about the crimes of the Russians. However, despite the promises, nothing has been realized so far.

"We registered and hoped to attend at least one meeting (we are talking about those events for which only the state can register). And now we feel like we've been let down. Because it's not just going as if on vacation. You have to prepare speeches and facts for such meetings, have excellent English, and, ultimately, prepare yourself mentally, take days off from work, it's like a whole complex. And in the end, it doesn't happen."

According to Anna, the wife of a seriously wounded prisoner, the head of the Presidential Office told them that they would be called "when there is a need."

"You will be contacted and I think it will be quite soon," he said. So far, they have not been contacted. If they, as statesmen, cannot talk about certain events, then let us do it. We are allowed to say more as relatives. Especially, we would talk about the largest mass execution that has happened in these two years with prisoners of war," emphasized Anna Lobova.

The actions that are being prepared and carried out in Ukraine and around the world against an enemy like Russia are not enough, the Community believes. They are a reminder, but they do not put pressure on the aggressor.

"This does not give any result, only in informing, because more people learn and realize that the defenders who went into this so-called honorable captivity are still in it, and it is not honorable at all. But if we talk about pressure, it does not change their (Russians' - ed.) position in the world at all. What is important to them is that business continues, they sell raw materials, have increased purchases of raw materials for gunpowder, and so on. This all continues for them, and this is what matters to them."

Now, two years after their release, the relatives continue to demand fair punishment for the occupiers who have committed and continue to commit daily murders and torture and seek to return the captives home. They want to go to the guarantors of the release with videos and speeches to convey information about what happened so that the already crippled people can receive at least the minimum assistance that can be provided to them today.

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