Roughly a month ago, the Ukrainian Azov regiment entrenched in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was ordered by Kyiv to surrender to Russian forces.
The Ukrainian authorities said this was the only way to save the lives of Mariupol defenders who spent months besieged in the plant under constant shelling with no access to basic supplies. The captured combatants had to return home via prisoner exchange, but so far none of them has been released and very little is known about their situation.
Hanna Naumenko, 25, says she hasn’t heard the voice of her partner since the day he left the plant back in May.
The head of the Azov regiment Denys Prokopenko has called his wife Kateryna once for 30 seconds, at the beginning of his captivity. The connection was very bad, the couple could barely hear each other, yet, Kateryna describes this call as a happy memory.
She learned back then that her husband and his fellow combatants were kept in satisfactory conditions, but it was impossible to know whether Prokopenko could express himself freely on the phone.
Right now, Azov families say that from the limited information they receive from the negotiators they know for a fact that the Ukrainian prisoners — protected under international humanitarian law — are kept in bad conditions, which do not correspond to those required by Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of war and detainees.
“What we know is that the isolator where PoWs are kept is overfilled, food and water needs improvement,” Kateryna Prokopenko said in a statement. “The stories of the war prisoners released earlier show that they endured physical and mental torture,” The Armed Forces of Ukraine added in a press release.
There is no exact public information to this day regarding the number of Ukrainian soldiers and commanders taken from Azovstal into captivity. The numbers provided by different sources vary from 1,000 to 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 stated that “there are enough materials to hold a tribunal over the Ukrainian military” and promised an open trial. Such trials, including those where ‘the prosecution’ asks for the highest penalty, do happen in the so-called DPR: recently, three foreign soldiers with the Ukrainian armed forces were sentenced to death.
The Russian Investigative Committee said it will question the combatants. Rumours circulated that some of them being transferred to Russia. The Ukrainian side could not confirm whether or not all the Ukrainians remained in Donetsk region, in territories not under the control of the Ukrainian government.
Speaking on national television, the Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov said about a week ago that not only Ukraine but also international institutions were involved in the exchange process. He called it “a very delicate matter” that “should not to be disrupted”. “There is not much to say,” he suggested.
The Ukrainian side says that the negotiation process is highly classified, while the families of captured soldiers are worried that their loved ones will be forgotten.
They are asking foreign journalists to try to visit the place where the war prisoners are kept, and for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — which has the mandate to visit Ukrainian servicemen — to check the conditions of their detention.
The ICRC has registered the combatants leaving the Azovstal plant in order to track those who have been captured. That was done to help the prisoners to keep in touch with their families, the ICRC team explained at the time.
So far, this has given a chance for a family member to check via a procedure whether the Mariupol defender from Azovstal has left the plant to be taken into captivity alive, but not much more.