Both sides in the ongoing war in Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling a military prison in a separatist region in the east of the embattled country. Ukrainian prisoners of war, captured following the fall of Mariupol, had been kept at the facility in Olenivka following the fall of the city.

Firefighters attend to a home destroyed in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, during a Russian missile strike. Image Credit: Press service of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration

Finger Pointing

Russia and Ukraine pointed the finger at each other, stating that the attack on the prison was a way of silencing the inmates and therefore keeping the world from hearing about any potential atrocities or war crimes.

Olenivka, the settlement where the prison is located in the Russian-controlled breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic. Russian officials report that 53 Ukrainian POWs died in the attack, and another 75 were injured. Those killed ranged in age from 20 to 62.

Denis Pushilin, who has served as the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) since 2018, informed the press that the prison held 193 inmates. However, he did not specify how many of those were prisoners of war.

The Kremlin sent a team from Russia’s Investigative Committee, the main federal investigative authority in that nation, somewhat analogous to the FBI in the United States. You may see it abbreviated as SKR. RIA Novosti, the Russian state-owned news agency, has reported that the SKR found fragments of US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rockets at the prison site. However, this claim has not been independently verified.

The Other Side of the Story

The Ukrainian military vehemently denies the Russian implication that they killed their own people. They claim they made no rocket or artillery strikes into Olenivka and went a step further in accusing the enemy of deliberately killing the prisoners to cover up reported instances of alleged ongoing torture and execution of those being held there.

Referring to the attack, a close advisor to President Zelensky called the incident “a deliberate, cynical, calculated mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners.” Ukrainians are calling it a terrorist attack, done purposefully and with the intent of blaming it on them.

Ukraine’s Chief of Intelligence is specifically blaming the attack on The Wagner Group, a private military contractor (PMC) alleged to have close ties to President Putin. 

Video footage of the aftermath of the attack. Images courtesy of NBC News.

Eduard Basurin, the Deputy Commander of Donetsk separatist forces, states that he feels Ukraine “knew exactly where they were being held and in what place. After the Ukrainian prisoners of war began to talk about the crimes they committed and orders they received from Kyiv, a decision was made by the political leadership of Ukraine: carry out a strike here.”

You can decide for yourself what you feel about that statement.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has requested access to the prison “to determine the health and condition of all the people present on-site at the time of the attack.” Sounds like a reasonable request to me. They continued, “Our priority right now is making sure that the wounded receive lifesaving treatment and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are dealt with in a dignified manner.” 

Ukraine’s Coordination Center on Handling Prison of War Issues has demanded that Russithem with a list of the names of those killed and wounded in the attack. They also seek a way to retrieve the bodies of the deceased POWs.

As of this writing, Moscow has not responded to their request, nor that of the Red Cross.

A close advisor to President Zelensky states that he has proof that Russians had transferred Ukrainian prisoners to the specific barracks that were targeted only a couple of days before the strike. He believes this highly suggests it was planned.

POWs under the Geneva Accords

The camp itself is referred to as a Penal Colony in the village of Olenivka in the Donbas region.  It is a rather large prison complex of about a dozen buildings surrounded by walls and guard towers.  It is located within an active war zone in midst of a civilian area.  Under the Geneva Accords, a country holding POWs has the obligation to locate them in a safe area in a facility clearly marked as a POW camp visible from the air.  They should also give the location to the country they are fighting of these camp locations as well.



An Unexpected Twist

The SBU, Ukraine’s security agency, claims to have intercepted phone calls “in which the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame for this tragedy.” In a statement to the press, they say that the intercepted messages indicate that Russians placed explosives in the prison.

“Explosives?” you say. Yes, the SBU noted that  “In particular, none of the eyewitnesses heard any missile flying towards the correctional facility. There was no characteristic whistling, and the explosions occurred on their own.”

They went on to explain how surveillance footage showed that some of the windows in the buildings previously thought to be struck in a missile attack had remained intact. They believe this “indicates that the epicenter of the explosion was inside the destroyed building, and its walls took the hit from the blast waves, protecting some of the neighboring rooms.”

I guess the jury is still out on exactly what caused the explosions, but one thing is for certain, there are 53 dead Ukrainian POWs and another 75 wounded because of them.

There are also some questions about the evidence used to prove that Ukraine bombed their own prisoners.

Russian media outlets published photos of what are purported to be fragments of a HIMARS rocket used to bomb the Olenivka prison barracks sitting on a green bench.

In a matter of hours, another Russian news outlet used the same photo in a story about a HIMARs strike on a rail station in Zaporozhye which is more than 150 miles away from the prison.