Two days after the crash of a Russian military plane that, according to Moscow, was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war, the questions remain numerous and particularly urgent for the relatives of captured soldiers, torn between “shock”, doubt and anger.
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According to Russian authorities, a military transport plane crashed in difficult conditions on Wednesday near the Russian village of Jablonovo in the Belgorod region, 45 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, killing all 74 people on board.
Russia, which accuses Kiev of shooting it down, asserts that it was transporting 65 Ukrainian prisoners due to be exchanged that day – with a crew of six people and three Russian soldiers – but has not provided evidence to support these claims.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian forces and that they knew it was carrying Ukrainian prisoners.
“The intelligence services of the Ukrainian army knew that we had 65 (Ukrainian, editor's note) soldiers on board. They shot it down, by accident or on purpose, but they did it,” he told Russian students in his first comment on the crash.
“In any case, it is a crime,” he added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for an independent international investigation. Kiev seemed to wonder whether there were any prisoners on board.
No news from the prisoners
This crash came at a time when the issue of soldiers in the hands of Moscow's armed forces and their replacement is particularly sensitive, and has raised the suffering of the relatives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still imprisoned by Russia.
When she found out, it was “as if time stood still,” explains Valeriïa Dolia, 28, whose boyfriend Vadim has been in captivity for a year and a half.
“For three hours while you watch the news, you no longer exist, you look at your phone and that's it,” the Ukrainian continues. “I want to see him alive, healthy and at home,” she said.
For her part, 30-year-old Yevgeniyya Synelnyk has had no news of her brother Artem, who is also a prisoner of war.
Both Artem and Vadim were captured on May 20, 2022 at the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.
The last defenders of this besieged city, who were considered heroes in Ukraine for having resisted the Russian fire for weeks that largely destroyed the city, holed up here.
“act of terrorism”
When Yevgeniya Synelnyk heard the news, she said she was “shocked, but not completely.” It remains marked by the bombing of a Russian-occupied prison in Olenivka in eastern Ukraine in July 2022, in which more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war died.
Kiev and Moscow blame each other, but the Ukrainian is convinced that Russia has committed a “terrorist act”.
For them, this crash shows that the Russian army is “moving on.” “They show the whole world how they treat prisoners of war,” she assures.
“So it's just a disappointment and it's already so tiring,” she explains. “And what can we do?” “In our situation, it is normal to be exhausted, depressed and disappointed,” Yevgeniya Synelnyk continues.
Despite the ordeal, she is determined to “fight” for her brother until she finally receives “a final answer.” “That’s my only goal,” she says.
On Thursday, Ukrainian human rights commissioner and one of those responsible for the prisoner exchange, Dmytro Loubinets, called on the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to “inspect the site of the crash.”
However, he said he was “convinced” that Moscow would “not allow anyone (…) to see the site.” The ICRC rejected any “speculation” and reiterated that it “does not know what happened.”
According to Kiev, more than 8,000 Ukrainians, including more than 1,600 civilians, are being held by the Russians.
In recent months, Moscow has expanded trials of hundreds of prisoners, accusing them of war crimes. These prosecutions were denounced by Kiev and human rights organizations.