Forcing to peace. What happened in Olenivka Prison
30 July, 2022

New Katyn massacre — this is how the tragedy in the correctional colony No. 120, located near the village of Olenivka in the territory temporarily occupied by Russia, can go down in the history of war. On July 29, Russian propaganda reported on dozens of dead and wounded Ukrainians held here by the occupiers. According to the Russian version, the Ukrainian Armed Forces hit the colony, however, this version does not stand up to any criticism. The Ukrainian side says that this is nothing more than the execution of prisoners of war by Russia and demands an investigation and punishment.

The destroyed barracks in the correctional colony in Olenivka, July 29, 2022 / Photo: AP Photo

What happened — Russian propaganda version

On the morning of July 29, Russian propaganda spread information that more than 50 people were killed and more than 70 were injured due to the shelling of the colony in Olenivka. All of them are detained Ukrainians. This happened allegedly as a result of two direct hits on the building where more than 150 prisoners of war, mostly members of the Azov Regiment, were detained. According to the occupiers, in this way, Ukraine wanted to get rid of Azov Regiment members who allegedly began to testify about the criminal orders of the leadership.

At the same time, not a single colony employee was injured.

Video footage of Russian television does not allow to see confirmation of the voiced version. Propagandists show alleged debris from US-suppled HIMARS missiles but do not show the craters that should have formed after the attack. The video also does not show the general plans of the building on which rockets were allegedly targeted from the Ukrainian side.

The destroyed barracks in the correctional colony in Olenivka, July 29, 2022 / Photo: AP Photo

What happened — human rights defenders' version

Correctional colony No. 120 is located 2 km from the urban-type settlement of Olenivka, closer to the village of Molodizhne.

You can see from Google Maps that the colony's territory is 450 by 270 meters. In the lower-left corner, you can see 6 barracks, in the upper part — the so-called "industrial zone." Members of the Azov Regiment, service members of the 36th Marine Brigade, and border guards from Mariupol, as well as civilians who did not pass the "filtration" process, are detained on the territory of the prison. 

According to the Media Initiative for Human Rights coordinator, Olha Reshetylova, in total, more than a thousand people were detained in the colony. It's more than the plan allows – the colony is overcrowded.

Human rights defenders from MIPL communicated with those held in this colony and locals. They said that there could be about 200 people in the building. The same sources told human rights activists another version of what happened in the colony on the night of July 29. According to this information, there was no shelling - there was an explosion since the sound typical for shelling was not heard. Moreover, this happened not in those barracks where prisoners were kept for a long time but in another one, where the Ukrainians were only recently moved.

"If the information that we have is proven: that the Russians specially brought people there, organized this explosion - there were 3 or 4 explosions - then this is one of the most brutal crimes," said Reshetylova in a conversation with hromadske.

She draws attention to the strange report that during the so-called "shelling," none of the guards were injured.

"According to the released hostages and prisoners, we know that they are under the constant supervision of convoy, Russian soldiers, or representatives of the so-called people's militia of "DPR." I have not heard of cases where they were left without the supervision of the colony staff. So it seems strange that none of the guards were injured," Reshetylova adds.

Ukrainian service members in Olenivka colony after leaving Azovstal, May 19, 2022 / Photo: AP Photo

What happened - official versions of Ukraine

On July 29, several Ukrainian agencies immediately voiced versions of what happened in the colony.

The General Staff was one of the first to announce the information: missile forces and artillery of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not attack Olenivka. Instead, Russia's Armed Forces carried out a targeted and deliberate artillery attack on the colony.

Later, the Security Service of Ukraine reported that the "shelling" of the Olenivka colony was carried out by the occupiers - the Russians allegedly planted explosives in the colony. In confirmation of this, the Special Service of Ukraine published an audio recording, which was called an interception of the militants' conversation.

In this recording, an unknown "DPR" militant tells the interlocutor that two days before the tragedy, about 200 people were moved to the "industrial zone" to a new barracks, and after that, they (the Russians — ed.) blew up the barracks.

"Yesterday night (July 28 — ed.), around 11 p.m., Grad started working just under the fence, 100 meters from the fence. The first 10 rockets were followed by an explosion. The second 10 — explosion. A total of three explosions," the audio recording says.

The conversation also mentioned that no shells were heard, and windows in nearby buildings were not blown out. The Security Service of Ukraine also draws attention to this (surviving windows on the video of Russian propagandists) in its message.

"This indicates that the epicenter of the explosion was inside the destroyed building, and its walls "silenced" the blast waves and "protected" the neighboring premises," the Special Service concludes.

After the SSU, the Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported on the situation in the colony. Intelligence mentions a "powerful explosion" that destroyed the premises where the captured Ukrainians were detained. Further, the message refers to explosions on the territory of the industrial zone in a newly built building, which was supposed to be specially equipped to hold prisoners taken out of Azovstal. According to intelligence, the construction of this building was completed two days ago, after which some of the detained Ukrainians were transferred there.

Defence Intelligence emphasizes that the death of Ukrainians is a provocation and an act of terrorism committed by mercenaries of the private Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group on the personal instructions of the nominal owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The latter is also known as "Putin's cook." At the same time, as the Defence Intelligence notes, the Russian Ministry of Defense was not involved in these plans.

Why were Ukrainians killed?

The Ukrainian side voiced several versions of why exactly the Russians could resort to a terrorist attack.

In particular, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine says that the occupiers intended to accuse Ukraine of committing "war crimes" and to cover up the executions and torture of prisoners.

Defence Intelligence calls the main purpose of the terrorist attack the desire to hide the facts of embezzlement of funds allocated for the maintenance of Ukrainian prisoners of war — allegedly, on August 1, the Moscow commission was supposed to visit the colony to check expenses.

Another goal, according to Ukrainian intelligence, is to increase social tension in Ukraine.

According to Oksana Moroz, the founder of the information hygiene initiative "How not to become a vegetable," the tragedy in the colony became another stage of a large-scale Psychological operation (PSYOP). According to her observations, after the terrorist attack in Vinnytsia, the Russians in the information field began to intimidate Ukrainians to incline them into the negotiation process, this is "forcing to peace."

"This is an ordinary terrorist PSYOP, absolutely the same technique. For terrorists, the number of victims is not important, the main thing is the media effect. And the media effect is intimidation. That's where they hit," says Moroz in a conversation with hromadske.

Is this PSYOP achieving its goals? Moroz divides the answer into two parts.

If we talk about "forcing to peace," then the Russians are not successful here. "This does not affect either the position of the authorities or Ukrainians. Ukrainians write that we will not surrender. I haven't seen posts saying that we are ready to stop fighting and make compromises," Moroz shares her observations of the reaction to terrorist attacks on social networks.

Instead, PSYOP can achieve another goal — unbalancing society. "In this regard, such a PSYOP is effective. This is evidenced by what people write on social networks. People are affected emotionally now. Someone falls into an emotional state of despondency and depression," explains Moroz.

At the same time, the expert adds that after the death of the prisoners in the colony in Olenivka, she observes a shake-up of the situation regarding Azov and Zelensky on social networks. "They are starting to ask the question: why don't you save Azov?" The Russians can use this situation for another attempt to divide, to strike at the authorities," concludes Moroz.

Inspection of the bodies of captured Ukrainian service members in the colony in Olenivka, July 29, 2022 / Photo: AP Photo

Will the Russians face punishment for Olenivka?

Russia should bear the punishment for the death of Ukrainians in the colony, says human rights activist Olha Reshetylova in conversation with hromadske. This follows from the Hague Convention of 1907: prisoners of war are under the authority of the opposing side's government, not of the individuals or units that captured them.

"This is the responsibility of the party under whose jurisdiction the prisoners of war are, they are responsible for their safety. What can be the punishment? This is a violation of international humanitarian law. There will be an investigation, and given the circumstances, it will be proven whether this is a war crime or just a violation of international humanitarian law," says Reshetylova.

If Russia's crime in Olenivka is confirmed in the eyes of the world community, it may accelerate the recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies have opened proceedings under Article 438 of the Criminal Code "Violation of the laws and customs of war." According to the interim Head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Maliuk, the available evidence indicates that Russia is responsible for the murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, the founder of the Azov Regiment, Andrii Biletsky, announced a hunt for everyone involved in the mass murder in Olenivka and promised that every rank-and-file performer and every organizer would be held accountable, regardless of position and location. "Wherever you hide, you will be found and exterminated," Biletsky said.

The Russian forces keep the colony in Olenivka closed to the whole world. Because of this, it is impossible to verify any information regarding the events in the colony. Now, there is no reliable information on the number of dead and wounded, it is not known whether they were only members of the Azov Regiment or other prisoners who were also kept in the colony. Different versions from Ukrainian structures, which were voiced during the day, can be explained by the lack of access to the territory and references to various sources, the information from which cannot always be verified.