by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Thursday, 4
August 2022
Analysis
10:00

What really happened at Olenivka prison?

Russia is preventing us from finding out the truth about the slain Azov soldiers
by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Bernard-Henri Lévy speaks with Ilya Samoilenko for his documentary ‘Why Ukraine’

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.

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Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
14 days ago

There’s one sure test to check if the Russian regime are lying: they open their mouths.

Last edited 14 days ago by Dermot O'Sullivan
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
15 days ago

Russians lie…get out of here!

Peter B
Peter B
15 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Quite. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of what percentage of official Russian government news and press releases about the Ukraine “Special Operation” (essentially a lie in itself) contain provable lies and which are true. I’d imagine it’s at least 80%. They’ve had 100 years of practice after all. The funny thing is, they’re still not very good.
I note that they apparently intend to use “irregular” courts to sentence “foreign mercenaries” for involvement in a “war” which is not by their own definition a war (no – it’s still a “special operation” !). Whilst throwing in Syrians and assoerted mercenaries on their own side.
What an absolute shower.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
14 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

As opposed to the ever so nice and truthful Ukrainians (and the Americans come to that)

martin logan
martin logan
14 days ago
Reply to  Jeanie K

Is that really the best you can do?

James B
James B
12 days ago
Reply to  Jeanie K

Dear Child, your answer is tragic in its delusion. When was the last example of Americans and Ukrainians committing such an atrocity and then suppressing the truth? Only examples from Western media will be considered acceptable. The Russian Press, you see, is controlled by the State.

David Barnett
David Barnett
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Russia is very proud its tradition of “Maskirovka” (deception for political or military purposes). Most states indulge in the practice, but Russia is particularly adept (and has been at it since Tsarist times).
However, I am not sure your “80%” provably false figure is correct, because the Russians have chosen to remain mostly silent about events on the ground and carefully choose what to speak about when they can prove it.
I think part of their game is to let their opponents discredit themselves with profligate wild claims, while building an impression of their own credibility by very selective and careful pronouncements of their own. Do not underestimate Putin – he knows how to be subtle.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
13 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

What is the first casualty of war, again?

D Glover
D Glover
14 days ago

Is it possible that President Zelensky made a bad mistake in ordering the defenders to surrender? If they had died fighting how could that be worse than what has happened to them?

Wyatt W
Wyatt W
14 days ago
Reply to  D Glover

In hindsight maybe… it’s hard to blame him though. I’m no expert but it seems either you surrender and hope for the slim chance that the Azov soldiers can eventually be released/traded for in some way, or you guarantee their death by refusing to surrender.

martin logan
martin logan
14 days ago

Russia is paying the price of having the KGB/FSB run the country.
Since their brief is deception, the whole country becomes nothing but a cathedral of lies.
And, given the miserable performance of Russia’s military so far, the only people Russia’s leaders have been able to completely fool–is Russia’s leaders.
Putin’s Russia is no longer a serious country.

David Simpson
David Simpson
12 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

err, ask the Ukrainians possibly. I think Russia is quite serious

David Barnett
David Barnett
12 days ago

Supposedly there are 23 comments to this article. Whya can I see only 9?

Jake Dee
Jake Dee
11 days ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Well I think mine got deleted for basically asking “Qui bono ?”

Jake Dee
Jake Dee
13 days ago

That’s a very curious opinion piece. 50% is from a weeping mother who knows as much as you or I, but has a powerful emotion effect. Then Monsieur Henri-Levy, who has been called a philosopher (albeit a French one) tells us both that there is no independent confirmation as to who is culpable and also that for him it’s clear that the Russians are culpable.
Hardly very philosophical. His information about the HIMARS system appears to be totally false, Wikipedia gives it’s minimum range at 2 miles, not 12km and we would hardly expect Ukrainians to put their most valuable long range artillery system hard up against the front lines any way, that would be ridiculous.
The mention of the Katyn massacre was also interesting. I was thinking about that myself. In that situation, the Russians (Bolsheviks of course) carefully interrogated their prisoners over several months and they ones they though couldn’t be converted got shot in the back of the head, with a small caliber pistol, in a sound proofed room in the middle of the night. Maybe you think the Russian security forces are mad dog Orcs or maybe not, but do you really believe they’ve forgotten how to quietly shoot prisoners in the back of the head ?
What possible benefit is there for Moscow in blowing up a prison barracks ? AND blowing it up in such a way that the world knows about it ?
Henri-Levy then concludes by calling the Azov fighters the bravest of the brave. That’s an interesting counter point to anyone who still believes that Jews can’t support Nazis.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
13 days ago

There are so many on here who just believe anything and everything the govt and msm tell them. The 2 year practice during covid of propagandising and fearing the public seems to have worked well.

Mike K
Mike K
14 days ago

The fascist Azovites deserve their fate.

Last edited 14 days ago by Mike K
martin logan
martin logan
14 days ago
Reply to  Mike K

It would be a far better world without Russia.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
14 days ago
Reply to  Mike K

Rather interesting comment from someone holding a child in their comment image.

P Branagan
P Branagan
15 days ago

Hysterical hate filled rubbish article. Comprehensive photographic evidence has ready been provided showing it was a US made HIMARS missile that was responsible for the slaughter. Even the Pentagon has ‘himmed and hawed’ about ‘the mishap’.
The AZOV guys in the camp were beginning to ‘spill the beans’ on the savagery they perpetrated (and approved at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government) against Russophile civilians across Ukraine but particularly in Donbas. They had to ‘taken out’ before the entire world learnt of their depravity.

As for bringing up the Katyn massacre, It was the Germans who invaded Russia in 1941 resulting in 25,000,000 deaths in the USSR and were responsible for the holocaust. It was the US that dropped atom bombs that killed 100s of thousands of entirely defenseless mainly women and children in Japan in 1945. And then the 2million+ deaths in South East Asia in the 1970s.
It was the French who were responsible for the ~1,000,000 deaths in Algeria in the 1960s. As for the British it would just take too long.
So much for rhetorical whataboutery.

BTW The Russians have also formally invited the UN to inspect the site and interview the survivors.

It’s sad but Unherd is rapidly becoming a medium for hate speech.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
15 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

How we pick and choose! Have we forgotten the Holodomor when The USSR (Russia) starved 4M+ Ukrainian people to death. Not forgetting the Gulags of course. The article was about Russian involvement in a bombing of a camp. The Russians have a track record going back more than a century, that’s why no one trusts them, especially as they are now led by a psychopath slaughtering his own young. This war in not about Russia or the Ukraine; it is all about Vladimir Putin.
If you care to do some research, you will see that the flimsy building still standing was never hit with HIMARS.If it was, it would be a total wreck and the roof would not be in situ.

Last edited 15 days ago by Guy Aston
David Barnett
David Barnett
14 days ago
Reply to  Guy Aston

Stalin’s war against the “Kulaks” and the confiscation of grain was not confined to the Ukraine.
Putin is not in the same league.

martin logan
martin logan
14 days ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Yet…

Peter B
Peter B
15 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Hate to mention it, but didn’t the Russians actually enable Germany in 1939 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and shipping 2 years of critical oil and raw materials to the German military. As well as joining in the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Aren’t there photographs on Russian and German troops meeting up in central Poland after the invasion.
Or did I just make that all up ?
I put it to you that the Russians were largely responsible for the millions lost in WWII by:
1) their own military incompetence in 1941 (not helped by the pre-WWII purges)
2) enabling Germany to start the war in the first place
It is you who is engaging in whataboutery. And hate speech.
You should be ashamed,.

R Wright
R Wright
15 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

The sheer mass of delusion in this post is staggering

Philip LeBoit
Philip LeBoit
15 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Can you tell us where we might find the “comprehensive photographic evidence” of HIMARS, the confessions of the Azov fighters, and the formal invitation to the UN to inspect and interview?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
14 days ago
Reply to  Philip LeBoit

Of course he can’t

William Adams
William Adams
14 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Your last sentence is true. About your own wretched self.

martin logan
martin logan
14 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

But isn’t the obvious solution the disappearance of the Russian state?
If there had been no Russia, none of that would have happened.

David Simpson
David Simpson
12 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

Ditto, no bloody world. If there was no America, quite a lot of people (at last count, I think, about 3 million Vietnamese, just by the bye, but then then there’s the Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, and assorted south Americans ) would still be alive, and quite possibly happy.

Not completely sure that the world without the good ole USA would be a worse place.