An Ukrainian officer (R) of the Azrov regiment speaks during opening of an installation symbolising the resilience and faith of prisoners of war from Azovstal, to mark one year since the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, 20 May 2023, amid the Russian invasion. EFE/EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Uncertainty and anguish: the agony of relatives of Ukrainian POWs

By Luis Lidon

Tamara Protsenko (R) y Yevheniia Synelnyk (L), relatives of Ukrainian prisoners of war at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Viena, Austria, 2 July 2023. EFE/Luis Lidón

Vienna, July 2 (EFE) .- Tamara Protsenko hasn’t spoken to her fiancee Oleksandr — who was captured by the Russian army in May 2022 at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol — in 13 months.

Tamara Protsenko the fiance of Ukrainian prisoner of war at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Viena, Austria, 2 July 2023. EFE/Luis Lidón

Although the last time she spoke to him was on May 18, 2022, she knows that he is alive via other prisoners of war (POWs).

In December of last year, two released Ukrainian soldiers, who had shared a cell with him, told  Protsenko that Oleksander “was half alive,” and not well.

Oleksandr, 20, had untreated gunshot and shrapnel wounds and has suffered regular beatings and torture, according to his fiance.

“Two guys who were exchanged, they saw him and they told me that he is 50/50 alive, which is not really good but still I can’t imagine how he’s doing by seeing how the soldiers were,” Protsenko tells EFE and other media during a press conference in Vienna. “The physical appearance is just the tip of the iceberg that we see because then they have kidney problems, liver problems, thyroid hormones, bones, everything.”

Oleksandr is now in Taganrog prison, a city in Russia’s Rostov region, where conditions for prisoners are allegedly appalling.

“They say that it is the worst place where he can be,” she adds.

Fellow Ukrainian, Yevheniia Synelnyk’s brother is in the same prison.

She lost contact with him in May last year and he has also suffered regular beatings and torture, was also injured and has received no medical treatment.

Protsenko and Synelnyk have traveled to Vienna this week to speak of their situation at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting — a body that brings together 57 states in which Russia also participates.

The two young women joined the meeting to represent the families of the Azovstal prisoners of war.

In May 2022, Russia captured some 2,500 soldiers in Mariupol and still holds around 1,900.

Many of the released Ukrainian soldiers return home emaciated and suffer from health issues after not receiving proper medical care.

“We thought that the images of the concentration camps of World War II were a thing of the past, of museums, but now we see it in reality when soldiers return in prisoner exchanges. It is crazy,” Synelnyk laments.

The two women are calling on the international community to ramp up pressure on Russia so that Moscow fulfills its international obligations in its treatment of the captured fighters.

Protsenko and Synelnyk are highly critical of the International Committee of the Red Cross for failing to push harder for access to the prisoners as Russia continues to block access to Ukrainian prisoners, violating its obligations under the Geneva Convention.

Despite protests and campaigns on social networks, the circumstances remain the same and  POWs continue to be held incommunicado and suffer ill-treatment.

As members of the Azov Brigade, the relatives of captured soldiers are seen as symbols of Russian resistance and belong to “a unit that is especially hated by the Russians.”

“When you don’t have any communication, you don’t know if yours are alive,” says Protsenko.

The two women recall with anguish the shelling of the Olenivka prison, which is in an area of Donetsk occupied by Russian forces, that killed 53 Ukrainian prisoners in late July 2022.

Kyiv accused the Wagner paramilitary group of killing the prisoners to remove traces of torture, while Russia pointed to Ukraine.

Russia did not grant access to United Nations investigators to the site to conduct an investigation.

Protsenko and Synelnyk’s accounts echo the contents of the UN report released in March that accused both sides of executing and torturing POWs.

The report was based on interviews with some 400 prisoners, half from each side, and while torture and ill-treatment were practiced by both, it was far more common against Ukrainians, with 9 out of 10 reporting torture.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, recalled that while Ukraine gave wide access to its detention centers and had launched investigations into abuses, Russia did not collaborate in any way.

“This lack of access also means that numbers of cases ought not to be compared against each other,” Türk concluded. EFE