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'Worse Than Azovstal': Relatives Of Ukrainian POWs At Olenivka Shine The Spotlight On 'Horrific' Conditions There

Relatives of defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol hold a rally in Kyiv on July 30 demanding that Russia be designated as a terrorist state following the deaths of Ukrainian POWs in a deadly attack on a prison in Olenivka.

“We are living now exclusively on faith, hope, on plans for the future and memories of the past,” said Anastasia, whose husband was among the defenders of the Azovstal steel mill in the southern city of Mariupol who surrendered on May 16 after more than two months of concentrated assault by Russian forces.

Since the surrender, Anastasia’s husband, her father, and her sister’s husband -- all Azovstal defenders -- have been held at the Olenivka prison complex in territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

On July 29, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in an explosion at Olenivka that Russia and Ukraine have each blamed on the other.

Russian officials have said 53 POWs were killed and 75 wounded in the blast, which Moscow claims was carried out by Ukrainian forces using U.S.-supplied precision rockets.

Kyiv has accused the Russians and their proxies in Ukraine of orchestrating the explosion to cover up the alleged torture and execution of prisoners at the site.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations are seeking access to the site and the opportunity to evacuate the wounded.

“Our whole existence revolves around the fact that our loved ones are now in the most horrific conditions,” said Anastasia, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her POW relatives. “We thought nothing could be worse than Azovstal, but after what happened [on July 29] it turns out there can be something worse.”

Alina, whose husband was also an Azovstal defender who has been held at Olenivka since mid-May, told Current Time that she has not heard from her husband since his last night in the massive steelworks.

“We don’t use the phrase ‘the last time,’” she said when asked about her last communication with her husband.

“He sent photographs of himself, of his face, because I wanted to see him,” she recalled. “Since he left Azovstal, I have had no communication with him.”

'Exhausted' And 'Emaciated' POWs

Although neither Anastasia nor Alina have had contact with their relatives at Olenivka, they have identified them from photographs and videos posted on Russian social-media chat groups.

“I found out from sources such as Telegram groups, Russian ones,” Alina said. “You could see how the Azovstal prisoners were standing in formation at Olenivka. I saw my husband, close up, together with the others. Then in another video I saw him walking into the dining hall.”

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Alina and Anastasia are both active in chat groups with the families of other Azovstal POWs.

“They speak in general about how their relatives are treated, how they are all exhausted, emaciated, how they are fed twice a day with tiny portions of food that can hardly be called food at all,” Anastasia told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “They are given water from a stream. They are allowed to bathe, I think, twice a week.”

Many Russian and separatist officials have reserved a special animus for the Azovstal defenders, many of whom are members of the ultranationalist Azov Regiment, calling for them to face tribunals and even execution.

Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called them “Nazi criminals” in May and said they should not be included in any prisoner exchanges. Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Leonid Slutsky endorsed the idea of tribunals and said Russia should lift its 1996 moratorium on the death penalty.

“The whole world should see that Ukrainian nationalists deserve only execution,” he said.

On July 29, Russia’s Embassy in London said on Twitter -- in a post that violated the platform's “rules about hateful conduct” -- that “Azov militants deserve execution, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they are not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death.”

The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that has been part of Ukraine’s National Guard since 2014. Formerly a paramilitary militia known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultranationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.

The two women and other relatives of Azovstal POWs at Olenivka say they are determined to make sure the government and the international community do not forget their relatives.

“Demonstrations are being held in Kyiv demanding the return of our heroes,” Anastasia said. “And not only in Kyiv. Such demonstrations are being organized in other countries so that they are not forgotten and so that we get help bringing them home.”

“We have seen that the Russians do not comply with any rules of warfare,” she added. “This was confirmed by [the July 29] events, so now we have really begun to sound the alarm.”

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.