August 4, 2022 - 10:00am

Alla Samoilenko is the mother of Ilya, a young officer who with his unit fought off the Russians for months from the caverns below the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. I interviewed him for my documentary, Why Ukraine, a few hours before he and his men were given the order to surrender.

During the interview, he told me that there was no fate worse than being turned over to the pro-Russia separatists in Donetsk. They would all be tortured, killed or both.

Then came July 29.

That evening, a prison near the village of Olenivka, a settlement southwest of Donetsk controlled by pro-Russia separatists, was destroyed. The prisoners there were mainly soldiers from the Azovstal complex, and many perished. The first question I ask his mother is whether Ilya was among the victims.

“I don’t think so,” she whispers, overcome with emotion. “We have received conflicting accounts. But he’s not among the 37 names on the list the Russians published. So, I don’t think so…”

I hesitate to tell her that the number of dead is higher. The Ukrainians are saying 53. “There are already two more,” she continues. “They died on the way to the hospital. Plus 71 wounded.”

“Do you have the list of the wounded?”

“Yes. We even know the hospitals. Hospital number 14 for the major burns. Number 16 for surgeries. The trauma centre in Kalinina for the others. But Ilya is not on those lists either.”

“When was the last time you heard news about him?”

“At the end of June, when a prisoner exchange was accepted by the Russians. A friend who had run into him in prison told me that he’d lost weight, saying that he was malnourished, skeletal. Since he was little, Ilya has had lung problems. He seems to have been suffering from pneumonia in the prison.”

“So no direct news? I read that the prisoners were sometimes allowed to phone their families.”

“That’s true, but not the Azov fighters. Never for them. Since the surrender on May 20, I haven’t heard my son’s voice.”

“What about Denis Prokopenko, his commanding officer, who led the unit at the Azovstal plant?

“We know that he was transferred right away to the Zheleznodorozhny military base near Moscow. Beyond that, we’ve heard only rumours: that he is being drugged with medications and subjected to psychological torture. It’s as if they were getting him ready for his trial… Isn’t that monstrous? Isn’t it against the Geneva Convention? When will the world finally recognise Russia for the terrorist state it is?”

I sense that she’s on the verge of tears. I try to broaden the conversation and ask her what she knows about the massacre, which the Russians are trying to blame on Ukraine.

Through what she tells me along with information I’ve gleaned from sources on the ground, I can make the following observations.

Although there has been no independent confirmation about who was culpable for the attack, no witness has yet testified to hearing the whistle that signals the arrival of a rocket from Ukrainian lines. In fact, those lines are barely 15 kilometres away from the prison, which is too close for an American HIMARS launcher to be effective, despite what the Kremlin has alleged.

Russia’s defence ministry claims that Ukraine used American weaponry to strike the prison building with the prisoners inside as part of a “deliberately perpetrated” provocation.

But the videos being circulated by Russian accounts reveal several troubling elements: there is no serious damage to any surrounding building, and within the prison, images suggest that there was an explosion that came from within (some walls, windows and sections of the roof remain intact). Distressingly, there are also charred bodies, which are the signature of thermobaric weapons — something the Russians relied on heavily during the siege of Azovstal.

Yet above all else, it is curious that the casualties appear to be mostly Azovstal fighters, who were transferred to the site a mere two nights before the attack. And during that period, various Russian figures had been calling for these “neo-Nazis” to be summarily executed (Leonid Slutsky, chair of the Duma’s committee on foreign affairs), to be hanged without being recognised as soldiers (Russia’s ambassador to Britain), and to be excluded from any exchange of prisoners (Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma).

To this day, the Russians have refused to allow Red Cross permission to enter Olenivka prison, despite its claims to the contrary.

Whether this will eventually happen is anyone’s guess, but to find out what really occurred, Russia must be subjected to an international inquiry of the sort that it long opposed following the BUK missile attack on the Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014.

For me, as for Alla, the conclusion is clear: what happened in Olenivka is Ukraine’s Katyn forest massacre. As at Katyn, where in 1940 Soviet soldiers assassinated the cream of Poland’s army and intelligentsia, the Russians have executed in cold blood the bravest of the brave of Zelensky’s army.

And Ilya Samoilenko — even if he escaped the massacre, as is my earnest hope — was not wrong in saying that it was better to die with a weapon in hand than to fall into the clutches of these bastards.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books. His most recent, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, is published by Yale University Press.