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'There is a lot that people don't know about Ukraine's war'

June 20, 2022

Ukrainian journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka have won DW's Freedom of Speech Award for their work documenting the siege of Mariupol. They explain why they intend to return to the front lines.

A man carries his child away from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022
Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka showed how Mariupol endured weeks without food, running water, gas and powerImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo/picture alliance

'No one was prepared for such brutality'

"From all the things I saw in Mariupol, one image has stuck with me: The dead body of an infant lying on the floor of the basement of a hospital."

This scene, which Mstyslav Chernov described to DW, was where he took his last photo in Mariupol, the day he left the besieged city in mid-March.

"We were filming at a hospital when a doctor came and asked me to follow him to the backyard," Chernov said. "There, I suddenly saw dozens of bodies, lying on the ground in bags or wrapped in carpets." The bodies, Chernov said, belonged to civilians killed in shellings.

The doctor then took him to the basement, where more bodies were lying. "Among them, there was this small package. The doctor leaned forward and unwrapped it, then I saw it was the small body of a baby. Next to the body was a piece of paper that said it was 23 days old."

Chernov is a staff video journalist for The Associated Press news agency. He and his longtime colleague, freelance photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, have received the DW Freedom of Speech Award for their reporting in Mariupol in February and March.

A man holding a child, wrapped in a bloodied blanket in his arms, rushing down a corridor with a distraught woman running behind
Russian media has said its army was not attacking civilians — a claim refuted by Maloletka and Chernov's photosImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo/picture alliance

They arrived at the seaport about an hour before Russian troops entered Ukraine, and reported from the city for three weeks before they were evacuated from the city in mid-March.

With horrifying detail, their photos and videos narrated how Mariupol, once a prosperous city, was plunged into decimation and chaos under heavy bombardment by Russian forces. The journalists documented the desperate condition in which the residents lived, cut off from gas and electricity, lacking food and drinking water for weeks. They recorded images of mass graves filled with the bodies of civilians and children.

Had it not been for the bulk of evidence Chernov and Maloletka gathered, the world might not have immediately found out about what the Russian army was doing in Mariupol.

Photos that defy Kremlin propaganda

On March 9, Maloletka took a picture of medics carrying a wounded pregnant woman out of a maternity hospital wrecked by a Russian airstrike. Chernov also filmed the scene. The pregnant woman and her baby subsequently died, while the photo shot across the web. Little did the journalists know at the time that the images would make headlines and prompt official reactions.

"We didn't have the chance, nor easy access to the internet, to monitor media and see the reactions to whatever we filmed or photographed," Chernov said.

"However, when the air strike on the maternity hospital happened, I realized that this was going to be one of the most crucial moments and images of this war and will make a huge impact."

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman by stretcher from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022
Russian officials said Maloletka's pictures of Mariupol's maternity hospital were fakeImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/picture alliance

While they had been trying to file those photographs using a weak, unsteady internet signal reachable only in a few spots of the city, Russian media were bombarding the public with claims that their troops were not harming civilians. But Maloletka's viral photos of the destruction of the hospital emerged as irrefutable evidence against the Kremlin's account.

Journalists under fire

Neither Chernov nor Maloletka are strangers to crisis areas. Chernov has reported from war zones in places like Syria, Iraq and Myanmar; while Maloletka has spent years covering Ukraine's Maidan revolution and conflicts in the Donbas region and Crimea.

But for them, Mariupol was different.

"For me, the war in Ukraine started eight years ago," Maloletka said in Bonn, Germany on Monday. "I had seen a lot of human suffering in Ukraine before Mariupol. But I had never seen this many children getting killed in such a short period."

"It was probably one of the hardest and the most dangerous assignments I have ever had," Chernov said. "This war is extremely dangerous and unpredictable, with extremely sophisticated weapons."

"So as you are worried for your life, you also feel this pressure to produce material and send it out because it is important."

Three men throwing a body wraped in sheets into a trench on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022
Poeple in Mariupol were forced to bury shelling victims in mass graves, due to their large numbersImage: Mstyslav Chernov/AP/picture alliance

This is what every journalist reporting from Ukraine experiences, he emphasized.

Since the beginning of the war, Russian troops have repeatedly fired upon journalists, as shown by a tally published by Reporters Without Borders. As of June 13, 2022, at least 12 journalists are confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine's battle zones, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ukrainian officials have reported higher numbers. Some other journalists have been reported missing, abducted or killed under unknown circumstances.

On April 2, about two weeks after Chernov and Maloletka left Mariupol, Russian soldiers there shot Lithuanian documentary filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius dead.

Returning to front lines

Despite all the threats, Chernov and Maloletka are planning to head back to the front lines after a short stay in Germany to attend the ceremony for the DW Freedom of Speech Award.

With its award every June, DW honors a media personality or initiative which has shown outstanding promotion of freedom of expression and press freedoms.

Chernov described how the current situation in eastern Ukraine is not any better than what Mariupol went through under siege, if not worse. "But no one knows the extent of civilian casualties and decimation that's happening there because no pictures are coming out of those areas," he said.

Ukrainian photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov in front of his photographs at an exhibition in Cologne, Germany
​​​​With his colleague Maloletka, Chernov spent three weeks in Mariupol when the city was surrounded by Russian tanksImage: Maksym Drabok/DW

They both said that as Ukrainian journalists they felt they had a duty to go back to the front lines. Since leaving Mariupol, Maloletka has reported from places such as Bucha, near Kyiv, and cities in the Donbas region before they were taken over by the Russians.

"We almost know nothing about the regions occupied by the Russian forces," he said.

Born and raised in eastern Ukraine, Maloletka hears about atrocities that are happening in the Donbas through his personal networks. "Someone has to document these things," he said.

"I feel like Ukrainians have a long, complicated, and unpredictable war ahead of them," Maloletka added. "I see myself a part of that war, with what I can do, which is fighting against lies and misinformation."

"Browsing through the mainstream media, I get the impression that few people realize how close the war in Ukraine is to Europe and what an immense impact it is going to have on the whole world," Chernov noted, adding that the conflict has endless repercussions on the politics and the economy of today's interconnected world.

This is why Chernov sees his work in Ukraine as beyond reporting on a war zone.

"It's more of reporting on the start of something huge, more of witnessing events and battles that will shape the world's future," he said.

"As a journalist, how can you not feel the duty to do that?"

Edited by: Sonya Diehn