DW's Freedom of Speech Award 2022 will be given to the freelance photojournalist Evgeniy Maloletka and to Associated Press videographer and photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov, who together documented the siege and destruction of the port city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, as well as the work of doctors and undertakers, and the suffering of countless victims.
Their images of a maternity hospital destroyed by Russian bombs were seen around the world.
When Russia recognized the independence of the so-called People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in February, Maloletka told DW, it became clear to the journalists that war was inevitable — the only question was when it would begin. "We were aware that they would try to establish a corridor to annexed Crimea via Mariupol," Maloletka said. When the invasion began on February 24, the journalists were in Mariupol, a port city on the Azov Sea.
Mariupol was one of the first cities in Russia's crosshairs. "We filmed missiles hitting apartment buildings," said Maloletka. Initially, the eastern part of Mariupol was affected by the shelling; apart from that, other parts of the city were relatively quiet — Maloletka said the journalists were more or less able to work normally and move freely there.
During the following days, increasing numbers of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in Mariupol. "The entire military entered the city because it was no longer possible to hold positions out in the fields," said Maloletka. The shelling became more intense, including in the center of the city. There were airstrikes, and Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups were out and about in the city.
It became more difficult to move around freely. Fewer and fewer people and vehicles could be seen on the streets, and phone lines gradually collapsed until contact was severed by March 10. "People panicked and asked us what was going on," said Maloletka. "They tried to get any kind of information and inquired about humanitarian corridors."
The journalists accompanied undertakers as they collected bodies from hospitals. As many cemeteries were not accessible, some of the dead were buried in backyards. When the number of casualties kept rising, mass graves were dug. "A trench, approximately 30 meters long and 3 meters deep, was excavated," Maloletka said, "and the bodies from the hospitals were buried there."
Chernov and Maloletka also watched girls and boys fall victim to Russia's invasion. "All the hospitalized children who were photographed by us died," said Maloletka. "Fifteen-year-olds, but also 3-month-old babies, died as a result of the shelling. It's very hard to get the deaths of children out of one's head."
Mariupol in ruins
Gradually, almost all of Mariupol's infrastructure was destroyed, Maloletka said — from the hospitals to the fire station, with all of its firefighting units. "They destroyed the fire brigade, presumably to ensure that extinguishing fires in the city and recovering people from the ruins would be impossible," said Maloletka, "and to spread fear among the population."
Then, Russian troops entered the city. "They're advancing with tanks, razing everything in sight before they move on, from one neighborhood to the next," said Maloletka. "That's a medieval tactic: If you can't conquer and hold a city, raze it to the ground."
When a bomb hit a hospital with a maternity clinic on March 9, the journalists were close to the scene. "We heard aircraft noise, quickly followed by multiple explosions," said Maloletka. "There was a very strong blast, which shattered the windows of the neighboring houses. We saw that everything was smashed there. People in shock came running from the basement. We saw how pregnant women were carried downstairs. It was an overwhelming sight."
Maloletka does not believe that the building had housed military positions or military equipment, as claimed by Russia. Just one section of the hospital had served as a military clinic.
The journalists had entered the heavily damaged hospital in order to talk to women in the maternity clinic when Russian tanks suddenly approached, Maloletka said. "We were hiding inside the hospital for almost a full day. We were wearing white scrubs, posing as doctors, and filmed Russian tanks driving around town," he said.
On the morning of March 12, Ukrainian special forces managed to take the journalists to a safe place. "Our vehicle was gone, and we could move freely in Mariupol only to a limited extent," said Maloletka. "Later, police officers assisted us in accessing the internet via satellite, which enabled us to transfer data."
Eventually, they were advised to save themselves. "We were told that if we were captured by the Russians, they would force us to say what they wanted us to say into the camera," said Maloletka — including that their reports had been lies. "I didn't want to experience firsthand how the Russian intelligence services deal with people who are detained."
Evacuation from Mariupol
On March 15, Maloletka and Chernov left the embattled city. "We drove very slowly," said Maloletka. "On the road between Mariupol and Orikhiv, just before Zaporizhzhia, there was at least one checkpoint per village. In total, we crossed some 15 or 16 Russian checkpoints. We feared that our phones would be confiscated, but this didn't happen. At night we finally crossed the border between Russian and Ukrainian troops."
According to the Ukrainian prosecutor general's office, 18 members of the press had been killed through the end of April, eight others were abducted, three journalists were reported missing and 13 others were injured. Those groups include Ukrainians, but also 19 members of the press from the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, the United States, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Ireland, Switzerland, France and Lithuania.
Since 2015, the DW Freedom of Speech Award has honored a person or initiative that has played an important role in the promotion of human rights or freedom of expression in the media.
This article was originally written in Ukrainian.