About a month ago, the Ukrainian Azov regiment entrenched in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant was ordered by kyiv to surrender to Russian forces.
Ukrainian authorities said it was the only way to save the lives of Mariupol’s defenders, who spent months besieged at the plant under constant shelling without access to basic supplies. The captured fighters were supposed to return home through a prisoner exchange, but so far none of them have been released and little is known about their plight.
Hanna Naumenko, 25, says she hasn’t heard her partner’s voice since the day she left the plant in May.
The head of the Azov regiment, Denys Prokopenko, called his wife Kateryna once for 30 seconds, at the beginning of his captivity. The connection was very poor, the couple could barely hear each other, yet Kateryna describes this call as a happy memory.
Then she learned that her husband and his companions were in satisfactory condition, but it was impossible to know if Prokopenko could express himself freely on the phone.
At this time, the Azov families say that, due to the little information they receive from the negotiators, they know for a fact that the Ukrainian prisoners – protected by international humanitarian law – are kept in poor conditions, which do not correspond to those required by the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and Detainees.
“What we know is that the isolator where prisoners of war are kept is overloaded, food and water need to be improved,” Kateryna Prokopenko said in a statement. “The accounts of previously released prisoners of war show that they endured physical and mental torture,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces added in a statement.
To this day there is no exact public information on the number of Ukrainian soldiers and commanders taken into captivity from Azovstal. The figures provided by different sources vary between 1,000 and 2,500.
They were first transferred to the territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Its self-proclaimed leader, Denis Pushilin, recently declared that “there is enough material to hold a court on the Ukrainian military” and promised an open trial. These types of trials, even those in which “the prosecution” asks for the highest sentence, take place in the so-called DPR: recently, three foreign soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces were sentenced to death.
The Russian Investigative Committee said it will question the fighters. Rumors are circulating that some of them are being transferred to Russia. The Ukrainian side could not confirm whether all Ukrainians remained in the Donetsk region, in territories that are not under the control of the Ukrainian government.
Speaking on national television, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said a week ago that not only Ukraine was participating in the exchange process, but also international institutions. He called it a “very delicate matter” that “must not be disturbed”. “Not much to say,” he suggested.
The Ukrainian side claims that the negotiation process is highly classified, while the families of the captured soldiers fear that their loved ones will be forgotten.
They ask foreign journalists to try to visit the place where prisoners of war are being held, and for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which is mandated to visit the Ukrainian military – to check the conditions of their detention.
The ICRC has registered fighters leaving the Azovstal plant so that it can track those who have been captured. This was done to help prisoners keep in touch with their families, the ICRC team explained at the time.
Until now, this has given the possibility for a relative to check, through a procedure, if the Mariupol defender from Azovstal has left the plant to be captured alive, but not much else.