20 days in Mariupol: Journalists documented a city’s agony
Mstyslav Chernov is a video journalist for the Associated Press. This is his account of the siege of Mariupol, as documented with photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and told to correspondent Lori Hinnant.
The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.
We were the only international journalists left in the Ukrainian city, and we had been documenting its siege by Russian troops for more than two weeks. We were reporting inside the hospital when gunmen began stalking the corridors. Surgeons gave us white scrubs to wear as camouflage.
Suddenly at dawn, a dozen soldiers burst in: “Where are the journalists, for f— sake?”
I looked at their armbands, blue for Ukraine, and tried to calculate the odds that they were Russians in disguise. I stepped forward to identify myself. “We’re here to get you out,” they said.
The walls of the surgery shook from artillery and machine gun fire outside, and it seemed safer to stay inside. But the Ukrainian soldiers were under orders to take us with them.
We ran into the street, abandoning the doctors who had sheltered us, the pregnant women who had been shelled and the people who slept in the hallways because they had nowhere else to go. I felt terrible leaving them all behind.
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Nine minutes, maybe 10, an eternity through roads and bombed-out apartment buildings. As shells crashed nearby, we dropped to the ground. Time was measured from one shell to the next, our bodies tense and breath held. Shock wave after shock wave jolted my chest, and my hands went cold.
We reached an entryway, and armored cars whisked us to a darkened basement. Only then did we learn from a policeman why the Ukrainians had risked the lives of soldiers to extract us from the hospital.
“If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie,” he said. “All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain.”
The officer, who had once begged us to show the world his dying city, now pleaded with us to go. He nudged us toward the thousands of battered cars preparing to leave Mariupol.
It was March 15. We had no idea if we would make it out alive.
As a teenager growing up in Ukraine in the city of Kharkiv, just 20 miles from the Russian border, I learned how to handle a gun as part of the school curriculum. It seemed pointless. Ukraine, I reasoned, was surrounded by friends.
I have since covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, trying to show the world the devastation firsthand. But when the Americans and then the Europeans evacuated their embassy staffs from the city of Kyiv in the winter, and when I pored over maps of the Russian troop buildup just across from my hometown, my only thought was, “My poor country.”
In the first few days of the war, the Russians bombed the enormous Freedom Square in Kharkiv, where I had hung out until my 20s.
I knew Russian forces would see the eastern port city of Mariupol as a strategic prize because of its location on the Sea of Azov. So on the evening of Feb. 23, I headed there with my longtime colleague Evgeniy Maloletka, a Ukrainian photographer for the Associated Press, in his white Volkswagen van.
On the way, we started worrying about spare tires and found online a man nearby willing to sell to us in the middle of the night. We explained to him and to a cashier at the all-night grocery store that we were preparing for war. They looked at us like we were crazy.
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We pulled into Mariupol at 3:30 a.m. The war started an hour later.
About a quarter of Mariupol’s 430,000 residents left in those first days, while they still could. But few people believed a war was coming, and by the time most realized their mistake, it was too late.
One bomb at a time, the Russians cut electricity, water, food supplies and finally, crucially, the cellphone, radio and television towers. The few other journalists in the city got out before the last connections were gone and a full blockade settled in.
The absence of information in a blockade accomplishes two goals.
Chaos is the first. People don’t know what’s going on, and they panic. At first I couldn’t understand why Mariupol fell apart so quickly. Now I know it was because of the lack of communication.
Impunity is the second goal. With no information coming out of a city, no pictures of demolished buildings and dying children, the Russian forces could do whatever they wanted. If not for us, there would be nothing.
That’s why we took such risks to be able to send the world what we saw, and that’s what made Russia angry enough to hunt us down.
I have never, ever felt that breaking the silence was so important.
The deaths came fast. On Feb. 27, we watched as a doctor tried to save a little girl hit by shrapnel. She died.
A second child died, then a third. Ambulances stopped picking up the wounded because people couldn’t call them without a signal, and they couldn’t navigate the bombed-out streets.
The doctors pleaded with us to film families bringing in their own dead and wounded, and let us use their dwindling generator power for our cameras. No one knows what’s going on in our city, they said.
Shelling hit the hospital and the surrounding houses. It shattered the windows of our van, blew a hole into its side and punctured a tire. Sometimes we would run out to film a burning house and then run back amid the explosions.
There was still one place in the city to get a steady connection, outside a looted grocery store on Budivel’nykiv Avenue. Once a day, we drove there and crouched beneath the stairs to upload photos and video to the world. The stairs wouldn’t have done much to protect us, but it felt safer than being out in the open.
The signal vanished by March 3. We tried to send our video from the seventh-floor windows of the hospital. It was from there that we saw the last shreds of the solid middle-class city of Mariupol come apart.
The Port City superstore was being looted, and we headed that way through artillery and machine gunfire. Dozens of people ran and pushed shopping carts loaded with electronics, food, clothes.
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A shell exploded on the roof of the store, throwing me to the ground outside. I tensed, awaiting a second hit, and cursed myself a hundred times because my camera wasn’t on to record it.
And there it was, another shell hitting the apartment building next to me with a terrible whoosh. I shrank behind a corner for cover.
A teenager passed by rolling an office chair loaded with electronics, boxes tumbling off the sides. “My friends were there and the shell hit 10 meters from us,” he told me. “I have no idea what happened to them.”
We raced back to the hospital. Within 20 minutes, the injured came in, some of them scooped into shopping carts.
For several days, the only link we had to the outside world was through a satellite phone. And the only spot where that phone worked was out in the open, right next to a shell crater. I would sit down, make myself small and try to catch the connection.
Everybody was asking, please tell us when the war will be over. I had no answer.
Every single day, there would be a rumor that the Ukrainian army was going to break through the siege. But no one came.
By this time I had witnessed deaths at the hospital, corpses in the streets, dozens of bodies shoved into a mass grave. I had seen so much death that I was filming almost without taking it in.
On March 9, twin airstrikes shredded the plastic taped over our van’s windows. I saw the fireball just a heartbeat before pain pierced my inner ear, my skin, my face.
We watched smoke rise from a maternity hospital. When we arrived, emergency workers were still pulling bloodied pregnant women from the ruins.
Our batteries were almost out of juice, and we had no connection to send the images. Curfew was minutes away. A police officer overheard us talking about how to get news of the hospital bombing out.
“This will change the course of the war,” he said. He took us to a power source and an internet connection.
We had recorded so many dead people and dead children, an endless line. I didn’t understand why he thought still more deaths could change anything.
I was wrong.
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In the dark, we sent the images by lining up three cellphones with the video file split into three parts to speed the process up. It took hours, well beyond curfew. The shelling continued, but the officers assigned to escort us through the city waited patiently.
Then our link to the world outside Mariupol was again severed.
We went back to an empty hotel basement, with an aquarium now filled with dead goldfish. In our isolation, we knew nothing about a growing Russian disinformation campaign to discredit our work.
The Russian Embassy in London put out two tweets calling the AP photos fake and claiming a pregnant woman was an actress. The Russian ambassador held up copies of the photos at a U.N. Security Council meeting and repeated lies about the attack on the maternity hospital.
In the meantime, in Mariupol, we were inundated with people asking us for the latest news from the war. So many people came to me and said, please film me so my family outside the city will know I’m alive.
Ukrainian officials also accused Russia of bombing an art school where hundreds had taken shelter in the besieged city of Mariupol.
By this time, no Ukrainian radio or TV signal was working in Mariupol. The only radio broadcasts you could catch told twisted Russian lies — that Ukrainians were holding Mariupol hostage, shooting at buildings, developing chemical weapons. The propaganda was so strong that some people we talked to believed it despite the evidence of their own eyes.
The message was constantly repeated, in Soviet style: Mariupol is surrounded. Surrender your weapons.
On March 11, in a brief call without details, our editor asked whether we could find the women who survived the maternity hospital airstrike, to prove their existence. I realized the video must have been powerful enough to provoke a response from the Russian government.
We found them at a hospital on the front line, some with babies and others in labor. We also learned that one woman had lost her baby and then her own life.
We went up to the seventh floor to send the video from the tenuous internet link. From there, I watched as tank after tank rolled up alongside the hospital compound, each marked with the letter Z that had become the Russian emblem for the war.
We were surrounded: dozens of doctors, hundreds of patients, and us.
The Ukrainian soldiers who had been protecting the hospital had vanished. And the path to our van, with our food, water and equipment, was covered by a Russian sniper who had already struck a medic venturing outside.
Hours passed in darkness, as we listened to the explosions outside. That’s when the soldiers came to get us, shouting in Ukrainian.
It didn’t feel like a rescue. It felt like we were just being moved from one danger to another. By this time, nowhere in Mariupol was safe, and there was no relief. You could die at any moment.
I felt amazingly grateful to the soldiers, but also numb. And ashamed that I was leaving.
We crammed into a Hyundai with a family of three and pulled into a 3-mile-long traffic jam out of the city. About 30,000 people made it out of Mariupol that day — so many that Russian soldiers had no time to look closely into cars with windows covered with flapping bits of plastic.
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People were nervous. They were fighting, screaming at one another. Every minute there was an aircraft or airstrike. The ground shook.
We crossed 15 Russian checkpoints. At each, the mother sitting in the front of our car would pray furiously, loud enough for us to hear.
As we drove through them — the third, the 10th, the 15th, all manned by soldiers with heavy weapons — my hopes that Mariupol was going to survive were fading. I understood that just to reach the city, the Ukrainian army would have to break through so much ground. And it wasn’t going to happen.
At sunset, we came to a bridge destroyed by the Ukrainians to stop the Russian advance. A Red Cross convoy of about 20 cars was stuck there already. We all turned off the road together into fields and back lanes.
The guards at checkpoint No. 15 spoke Russian in the rough accent of the Caucasus. They ordered the whole convoy to cut the headlights to conceal the arms and equipment parked on the roadside. I could barely make out the white Z painted on the vehicles.
As we pulled up to the 16th checkpoint, we heard voices. Ukrainian voices. I felt an overwhelming relief. The mother in the front of the car burst into tears. We were out.
We were the last journalists in Mariupol. Now there are none.
Amid warnings that Russia could resort to deadlier — and unconventional — weaponry, analysts say ground offensives could be stalling.
We are still flooded by messages from people wanting to learn the fate of loved ones we photographed and filmed. They write to us desperately and intimately, as though we are not strangers, as though we can help them.
When a Russian airstrike hit a theater where hundreds of people had taken shelter late last week, I could pinpoint exactly where we should go to learn about survivors, to hear firsthand what it was like to be trapped for endless hours beneath piles of rubble. I know that building and the destroyed homes around it. I know people who are trapped underneath it.
And on Sunday, Ukrainian authorities said Russia had bombed a Mariupol art school with about 400 people in it.
But we can no longer get there.
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