Ukrainians take to Boston to protest alleged Russian prison killings

Russia may not be taking the blame for killing more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war on Friday, but a group of Ukrainian-Americans who protested in Boston made it clear that they saw the prison shelling as an act of terrorism by a country trying to take away their freedom.

“We’re here to stop the terrorism,” said Andriy Boyko, a 48-year-old Ukrainian-American protesting across from the State House Saturday. “Every day, they kill our people, in different cities. My parents are on occupied territory. Mainly Ukrainians are on territories now occupied by Russian troops, but we will make this land free again.”

The 53 prisoners of war killed were captured after the fall of Mariupol, the city where Ukrainian troops famously held their ground against a monthslong Russian siege. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of carrying out the attack on a prison in a separatist region of eastern Ukraine, with each saying the aim was to cover up atrocities.

Ukraine said Russia carried out the assault to cover up the alleged torture and execution of Ukrainians at the prison. The Russians have accused Ukraine’s military of using U.S.-supplied rocket launchers to strike the prison in Olenivka, which is controlled by the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, to prevent captives from revealing key military information.

But for about 30 protesters gathered in front of the State House Saturday morning, chanting “Stop Russian terrorists,” there’s no confusion as to who the aggressors were in an attack that also wounded at least 75 Ukrainians.

“We believe that either they just put their Ukrainian prisoners of war, or they already killed them before and they just made an explosion and blamed it on us just to cover up their war crimes,” said Anton Khlebas, a 37-year-old Ukrainian-American who lives in Wakefield. “So it’s effectively — it’s killing hostages.”

“This is an outrage,” Khlebas added. “Our hearts are bleeding. Our souls are bleeding.”

Although the war between Russia and Ukraine may not be at the forefront of the news cycle any longer, as it was when the invasion occurred in February, he said his home country’s fight for freedom should still resonate with Americans, who had to fight for their own independence.

Khlebas said the “Stand up for Ukraine” demonstration was meant to call attention to the importance of stopping what he called crimes against humanity, but he doesn’t foresee the event having much immediate impact beyond awareness.

For him, it’s about the long run.

Perhaps the Ukrainian community’s continued outreach will have an impact on public opinion, and eventually influence the Legislature, he said, which could lead to Russia being labeled as a state sponsor of terrorism or the U.S. providing more weapons and support to Ukraine.

“There is an effect of a drop in the ocean,” Khlebas said. “And obviously when you add drops into an ocean and you add and add, you know that’s where you have a cumulative effect.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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