The Doctors Who Are Now Prisoners of War

The experience of Ukrainian medics in the notorious Olenivka POW camp suggests that Russia’s treatment of captives is certainly inhumane and probably illegal.

An illustration showing medical symbols behind a barbed-wire fence.
Getty; The Atlantic

When Russia’s siege of Mariupol began in February, Ivan Demkiv was the senior surgeon at a military hospital known simply by its number: 555. The hospital took in 20 wounded on the first day of the war. The number kept going up from there. For weeks, Demkiv hardly left the operating theater. His days were an endless succession of limb amputations and other lifesaving interventions, the sound of Russia’s bombardment of the city always in the background. Demkiv stayed at work even when Russians bombed the hospital itself, scattering broken glass over a patient unconscious on the operating table.

The price of that dedication was his eventual capture. Demkiv was taken prisoner in mid-April, along with 77 other doctors and hospital staff, and has been held ever since at a complex called Olenivka in the Russian-occupied east. The experience of Demkiv and his colleagues is revealing on a number of levels. First, it shows Russia’s willingness to imprison noncombatant Ukrainians in areas it has captured, either to hold them as bargaining chips for prisoner swaps or to put them to work under duress. More than that, it suggests that Russia is violating humanitarian laws that apply to prisoners of war about food, hygiene, and access to the Red Cross, as well as subjecting them to intimidation and public curiosity.

Compounding these concerns, in July a mysterious explosion killed more than 50 POWs at Olenivka. Ukraine blames the massacre on Russia and wants it investigated as a war crime. Demkiv and his colleagues were not harmed, but their relatives fear for their well-being. I spoke with several members of a support group formed by the relatives to seek the medics’ release.

In the weeks before he was taken prisoner, Demkiv was constantly worrying about his family: his wife, Anna, and their two children, aged 11 and 8. He knew they were hiding in the basement of their apartment building in a badly bombed district near the ruined Port City mall. As Russian forces tightened their stranglehold on the city, they cut off food, water, power, and cellphone service—so the couple could no longer text each other.

By the end of the war’s second week, Demkiv could bear the separation and uncertainty no longer. On March 4, in a break between surgeries, he grabbed a ride in an ambulance and rushed to evacuate Anna and the kids. But they were not at home. Anna had left him a note by the door saying that she had taken the children to the city’s main bomb shelter, under a regional drama theater. Demkiv had an intuition that she had not made it there. He rushed around the neighborhood, desperately looking for his family. After an hour of searching, he found them outside her mother’s apartment building.

“I was holding the hands of my children and struggling with our luggage when I saw him coming toward us,” Anna told me. “At that moment I knew that he would always find me and rescue us.” On that same day, a Russian air strike hit the drama theater, destroying the building and killing hundreds of those hiding in its basement. “I could be among the dead, if not for Ivan,” she said. Demkiv brought his family to another hospital, No. 3, because intense Russian shelling had already hit No. 555, where he had worked since 2015.

The family sheltered there for several days. But then, in another incident that became notorious around the world, a Russian strike reportedly killed a pregnant woman and her baby at Hospital No. 3’s maternity ward. So the Demkivs had to evacuate again. This time, Demkiv arranged for a colleague to help Anna and their children get out of Mariupol altogether and take refuge in western Ukraine. That was the last time the couple were together.

Later in March, Hospital No. 3 was overrun by Russian forces. Demkiv and his team of doctors evacuated, this time to the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, one of the last strongholds of Ukrainian resistance in besieged Mariupol. There, Demkiv and his colleagues continued to treat and operate on wounded Ukrainian civilians and soldiers until the Russian military seized the plant in the middle of April. The group of 78 medics was transported to Olenivka Correction Colony No. 120, in the eastern Donetsk region.

The dilapidated former Soviet prison complex is poorly equipped for its new purpose as a Russian-operated POW camp: It has no running water, and inmates complain of the insanitary conditions. The prison’s name became infamous worldwide when, on the night of July 29, an explosion ripped through one of its barracks, leaving 53 prisoners dead and another 75 wounded. Russia blamed the explosion on a Ukrainian rocket attack; Ukraine has claimed that the building was mined by Russian operatives.

What is undisputed is that the dead and wounded included members of the Azov Regiment, which had formed the core of the Ukrainian military’s defense of Mariupol and the last holdout before the Azovstal steel plant surrendered in May. Because of the regiment’s origins as a hard-line nationalist militia involved in the 2014 conflict with Russian-backed separatists, Moscow has made the regiment central to its propaganda about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Ukrainian officials fear that the Azov prisoners might have been targeted for torture and elimination, and they have called for the International Criminal Court to open a war-crimes investigation. (A U.S. official has warned that Russia may be trying to falsify evidence at the prison in an effort to lay the blame on Ukrainian forces.)

According to Rachel Denber, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch, Russia has an obligation under the Geneva Conventions to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross in to inspect the scene of the explosion. “Russia should immediately give access to investigate deaths of Ukrainian POWs to international authorities, including the ICRC and the UN,” Denber told me. “Any abuse or killing of POWs is a grave breach of laws of war, and a war crime.” On a visit to Ukraine last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced that his agency was establishing a fact-finding mission to investigate the massacre.

Anna begins every morning reading whatever news she can find about Olenivka. On the day of the explosion, she was one of the first among the relatives’ Facebook group to find out about it. She initially thought that the news might be a Russian fabrication, but as more reports came in confirming the massacre, she was gripped by fear: “I burst into tears.” Eventually, the group’s members realized that the explosion had not directly affected their people, the hospital staff held as prisoners. But the horror only underlined the relatives’ sense of powerlessness and despair. “I wonder if anybody in the world can stop this outrageous nightmare,” Anna told me.

I spoke with a former recent inmate of Olenivka, Konstantin Velichko, who was a volunteer driver for a humanitarian mission to evacuate civilians from Mariupol when the Russian military captured him at the end of March. He spent nearly 100 days in the prison before his release on July 4. He calls the experience “one constant nightmare.” He is convinced that his former captors were responsible for the explosion. “Those thugs were capable of simply destroying people’s lives,” Velichko told me. “They are totally nuts.”

Velichko said that he and several fellow volunteer drivers were housed in one of half a dozen insanitary, crowded barracks, which contained about 300 inmates in total. Most inmates were captured soldiers, but they also included dozens of civilians and noncombatants like Velichko. The worst section of jail, he told me, was a wing known as the Isolator, where prison guards often beat prisoners.

“We were 50 people in a cell for six inmates—dirt, walls covered in fungus, horrific stink, no windows,” he said. “There were at least 100 women kept in the Isolator—15 to 20 of them in one cell, where they’d have to take turns to sleep.”

DemkiV remains incarcerated at Olenivka, along with his colleagues Vladmir Shpakov, a young surgeon; Yurik Mktrchyan, an anesthesiologist; and 25 other medical staff from Hospital No. 555 (the whereabouts of the 50 other medics originally captured with them is unknown; they may have been moved to different prisons). Anna saw a video posted by a Russian Telegram channel, Readovka, that showed her husband putting bandages on another inmate’s wounds. Shpakov’s wife, Olga, herself a doctor, told me that she had frantically scanned every video she could find on Russian Telegram channels that had covered the explosion, fearing that her husband might have been among the victims.

The relatives are anxious for international agencies such as the ICRC to identify all of the hospital staff being held at Olenivka and to get confirmation from the Russian authorities of their POW status as noncombatants. They also want a channel of regular communication opened up between the prisoners and their families—though sporadic contact has occurred, through both semiofficial and clandestine means. Their ultimate hope is for a prisoner swap.

Olga has had two phone calls from her husband, both less than a minute long. The first was on June 8, two months after their capture in Mariupol. “His voice sounded sad,” she said. “He called me by his usual name for me, Zaichonok [little bunny], asked about our baby boy.” Then he explained that a Russian TV channel was filming him as they spoke. “They clearly wanted to demonstrate how fair they were,” she said, “letting a prisoner call his wife, ask about his baby’s health.” Even so, she was grateful for any sign that he was alive and well.

The second call came on June 20, from a Russian number; their conversation was very short and controlled. “How about the prisoner swap?” he asked her. A few days later, Ukraine did announce a prisoner exchange, securing the release of 144 Olenivka inmates, all of them wounded or disabled. No doctors were among them. Olga keeps her phone close, always in hopes of another call from her husband, perhaps with news of his freedom.

Anna, too, has received some word of what her husband is enduring. “In the last four months of his imprisonment, I’ve learned that my husband eats rotten porridge from dirty plates,” she told me. “He suffers from headaches but there are no painkillers, no surgical tools, no medicine in that colony, so his professionalism is completely wasted.

“He does not deserve to be held in that concentration camp,” she went on. “He is just a surgeon who treated all patients, and his guards know that … My life is empty without him, but I hope he feels how much I love him.”

Karina Mktrchyan, the sister of the anesthesiologist, has spoken a few times to her brother, in brief, hurried conversations in which he uses “coded language” in case the calls are intercepted. “We don’t even have the tennis rackets; do you understand what I mean?” he said to her on one occasion. She guessed that he meant the medics had no proper equipment or drugs with which to treat the wounded prisoners.

In Olenivka prison, the days begin at 6 a.m., when prisoners are awakened by guards playing loud, pro-Russian audio messages. “That propaganda was made specially for that colony,” Velichko told me. “It called for us to surrender. It said, ‘We guarantee you will live and Ukrainian authorities have forgotten about you.’”

In fact, Velichko is convinced that his life and others’ lives were saved precisely because of constant press coverage and public outrage about their plight. “The Russians were close to convicting us all for 10 years,” he said, “so we begged journalists, our loved ones, and friends to trumpet to the world about our captivity in that concentration camp.” For now, that is all the families of the medics in Olenivka can do.