The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How two journalists managed to share the horror stories of Mariupol with the world

In besieged Mariupol, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka of the Associated Press are enduring the same catastrophe they are documenting

People settle in a bomb shelter in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 6. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
5 min

If it were not for two Associated Press journalists in the besieged city of Mariupol, the world might not have learned what has been happening there as immediately as we have — nor in such irrefutable, horrifying detail.

For three weeks, Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka have documented the destruction of the southern seaport by Russian forces who have encircled the city and trapped its people there. The journalists have reported on mass graves filling with the bodies of children, the desperate measures to which the hungry populace is turning, and the destruction of a maternity hospital.

Maloletka’s March 9 photo of medics carrying a bloodied pregnant woman ran on the front page of every major American newspaper the following day. Chernov also filmed the scene. On Wednesday, they published an account of Mariupol’s devastation, including jarring details of the deaths of individual children by shrapnel and how, cut off from water, people have been reduced to boiling snow — stories that contradict Kremlin claims that its forces are not attacking civilians.

The picture they’ve painted of Mariupol — where residents lack heat, electricity and the ability to easily communicate with the outside world — is so bleak that readers might wonder: How are the journalists even able to do their work?

They’ve been subject to the same conditions as anybody else who’s been in Mariupol,” said Julie Pace, senior vice president and executive editor of the Associated Press. “When you consider how difficult getting that information out has been, it really just makes me extremely proud of their commitment to making sure that people know what’s happening in that location.

Beyond the work of Chernov and Maloletka, the few images of Mariupol that have reached the outside world have mostly come from Reuters photographer Alexander Ermochenko, who photographed people fleeing Thursday and Friday, and limited images provided by civilians and the Ukrainian government.

Chernov and Maloletka’s article on Wednesday hinted at the danger they’re facing; they wrote that Russian tanks positioned themselves near a hospital and “an AP journalist was among a group of medical workers who came under sniper fire, with one hit in the hip.” The dispatches have been jarring for their colleagues to read, realizing that the two are experiencing what they’re describing.

“While it’s been extremely difficult for them personally,” Pace said, the two journalists “feel really strongly that this is a story that needs to be told, and I think that’s been kind of their overriding focus.”

The lack of consistent electricity, Internet service and phone signals mean that AP editors have been in sporadic contact with them, and staffers outside of Ukraine have stepped up to help turn their dispatches into published articles; Paris-based AP correspondent Lori Hinnant co-wrote their article on Wednesday. But because of the communications challenges — which the AP declined to detail, citing security concerns — it has taken much longer than usual to get the information out.

Neither is a novice to covering conflict. Chernov, a member of the AP staff, has spent nearly the past decade in places such as Syria, Iraq and Myanmar; Maloletka, a longtime freelancer for the AP, covered Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and conflicts in Crimea. In this current crisis, they defy the stereotype of the foreign correspondent who parachutes into a war zone: Both hail from the eastern Ukraine region they are now covering.

Pace said the AP prefers to hire local journalists to tell the stories of their own countries. In Mariupol, the reporters have told the story with “a level of humanity and certainly with the kind of context and depth that you would only get from having that kind of firsthand knowledge.”

Peter Leonard, the former Ukraine bureau chief for the AP, first met Chernov in 2014. He was working as a “fixer” for an Italian news organization before being hired by the AP, where Leonard said he showed during their coverage of Russia’s invasion of Crimea a humanity and compassion for his subjects that “is quite rare to find in this profession.”

Both journalists are diligent and precise, Leonard said, noting that not only did they capture the horrific scene at the maternity hospital, but they also followed up to report on the fate of the people they encountered. The mother on the stretcher died, and so did her baby.

“Especially when it’s so dangerous, and explosions are everywhere, it’s so easy to get the sound bite, someone’s name and run away,” Leonard said. “To have that kind of sense of humanity, like okay, this is a person and we’re going to need to follow this story because otherwise this one image we capture is not going to make sense and not be useful as a historical record.”

Their reporting has been so damning that the Russian government has attempted to smear them. The Russian Embassy in London posted tweets claiming Maloletka’s photos of the maternity hospital were fake and calling him a “famous propagandist photographer”; Twitter removed the tweets for violating hateful conduct and abusive behavior polices related to denying violent events.

Leonard said the comments “disgusted” him, knowing what he does about the journalists’ commitment to fairness. During Russia’s 2014 incursion, Chernov covered both sides of the war, including embedding with Russian separatists for months and producing “stories on families all huddled in basements and all the hardships they had to endure.” The work drew praise from Russian state TV, Leonard said, “yet when he does the same to show the other side, they take a very different position.”

And while this story is personal to them — Ukrainians portraying devastation wreaked on Ukraine — Leonard said they are doing it without taking sides or displaying an agenda. “Their commitment is to the subjects,” he said. “And in that sense, they’re very pure-hearted journalists.”