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What it was like as family of Ukrainian prisoners of war waited for news after blast

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The soldiers known as the Azovstal defenders are heroes in Ukraine. They held out for months against the Russians, fighting from a bombed-out steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol, before becoming prisoners of war. Well, last month, their prison was bombed, allegedly by their Russian captors. NPR's Joanna Kakissis spoke to some of these soldiers' families as they waited to find out whether the men were dead or alive.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Olha Kerod was busy at work at a pharmacy in the western city of Lviv when she got a frantic call from her teenage daughter.

OLHA KEROD: (Through interpreter) My daughter said, Mom, something exploded in Olenivka. They blew up a building and many people died.

KAKISSIS: Olenivka is a prison colony in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Russia holds captured Ukrainian soldiers there. On July 29, the day of the explosion, Olha's husband, Stanislav - she calls him Stas for short - was in that prison.

KEROD: Everyone started calling me, texting me, asking, Olha, Olha, what has happened?

KAKISSIS: There were at least 50 dead and scores more wounded. She worried that Stas was among them.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) But I didn't cry. I didn't panic. I told myself and my daughter, don't believe anything until we know for sure.

KAKISSIS: Stas worked as a naval border guard in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where the family lived. Olha had not seen him for six months, since Russian forces bombed and shelled Mariupol, leaving thousands dead and nearly every building damaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB EXPLODING)

KAKISSIS: Stas joined several thousand soldiers who barricaded themselves beneath a sprawling local steelworks factory called Azovstal in a final last stand. This spring, NPR reached Stas there via WhatsApp.

STAS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He sent us several voice memos describing the constant bombing and shelling, how they were running out of medicine and food, and how relieved he was that his own family had escaped Mariupol. We last heard from him in May, when he and thousands of other soldiers left Azovstal in what they assumed was an evacuation. Instead, they were handed over to the Russians. His last text to NPR read, we are being evacuated into captivity.

KEROD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: We met his wife, Olha, a couple of weeks later at a cafe in Lviv. She's dark-haired and intense. Over the next several weeks, we speak several times. She tells us she heard from Stas directly only once in June, when he called her from a number she did not recognize.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) He told me the conditions inside the prison were terrible, that the prisoners were fed only once every two days, that hygiene was non-existent.

KAKISSIS: Then, on July 29, came the explosion. The blast destroyed a warehouse where prisoners had recently been moved. Images of charred bodies appeared on social media. Ukraine said Russian forces blew up the building to cover up torture of Ukrainian prisoners. Russia, in turn, accused Ukraine of killing its own soldiers to keep them from talking. It all made Olha's head spin.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) I didn't believe it, that such a thing could happen, that even the Russians could do such a thing.

KAKISSIS: Hundreds of miles east in Kyiv, Alla Samoilenko was also shocked. She was desperate for news on her son, Ilya.

ALLA SAMOILENKO: Yes, I heard only rumors. And it's very hard to tell about.

KAKISSIS: Alla knew many soldiers from Ilya's regiment were in Olenivka. She pleaded with the International Committee for the Red Cross for help.

SAMOILENKO: And they were very polite and full of mercy, you know. And after that, no connection, no feedback, no feedback.

KAKISSIS: The Russians blocked the Red Cross and other independent investigators from entering the site of the explosion. They instead brought in their own experts who repeated Kremlin talking points - all false - that Ukraine and the U.S. were responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: In cities across Ukraine, the families of the imprisoned soldiers took to the streets to demand information and justice. Yaroslava Ivantsova protested from her home in the central region of Kirovograd, where she now lives with her daughter and grandchildren after escaping the fall of Mariupol. Since the explosion, Yaroslava says she has spent hours scouring Russian social media channels for any details about her husband, Nikolai Ivantsov, and her son-in-law, Oleksii Lyashuk.

YAROSLAVA IVANTSOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: She says someone sent her a message that Nikolai and Oleksii were in the building in Olenivka that burned.

IVANTSOVA: (Through interpreter) I can't even begin to describe my reaction when I found out. I started to cry. And then I immediately got on the phone with Ukrainian military and government officials, but they said they had no information.

KAKISSIS: A few days after the explosion, the Russian military published a list of dead and wounded. Ivantsova saw her son-in-law's name on the list of injured.

IVANTSOVA: (Through interpreter) We started cold calling hospitals in the occupied territories to find out which ones had taken the wounded. But unfortunately, I couldn't get any information. The hospitals only said they didn't have any Ukrainian soldiers there.

KAKISSIS: But her husband's name was not on either list, neither was Alla Samoilenko's son, Ilya. The women have not heard from the soldiers. Alla says their fate seems unclear.

SAMOILENKO: I mean, they can kill all of them without any responsibility. And no one in the world can do something.

KAKISSIS: Back in Lviv, Olha Kerod got better news. She finally heard from her husband, Stas.

KEROD: (Through interpreter) He wrote to say that he was alive, that he's tired, and is wondering if people have forgotten about him and the other soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: But the families of the soldiers clearly have not forgotten. Olha recently posted a video on Facebook of the soldiers singing in the catacombs of Azovstal before the final fall of their city, trapped underground and yet still free.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Lviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.