Videographer Mstislav Chernov talks about the dramatic experiences in the city and how they informed the outside world about what happened there:
The Russians were chasing us. They had lists of names, among them ours, and they approached them. We were the only journalists left, and we had been documenting the Russian blockade for more than two weeks.
We reported from the hospital when gunmen started searching the corridors. The surgeons gave us white coats so we could camouflage.
At dawn, dozens of soldiers suddenly stormed and shouted “Where the hell are the journalists!”
I looked at their bracelets, which were blue for Ukraine, and tried to assess whether there were Russians in disguise. I applied to get to know myself. “We’re here to get you out,” said the soldiers.
The walls of the hospital shook from artillery and machine gun fire from outside, and it seemed safe to stay at home. But the Ukrainian soldiers were ordered to take us.
We ran into the street, leaving the doctors who protected us, the pregnant woman who had been attacked by grenades and the people who slept in the corridors because they had nowhere else to go. It was awful to leave them there.
Nine or ten minutes later, Kholoud crossed the roads and apartment buildings that had been bombed. When grenades fell nearby, we threw ourselves to the ground. Time was measured from one bomb to the next, and our bodies tense up as we lay down and hold our breath. Shock wave after shock wave pressed against my chest and my hands became cold.
We finally made it to an exit, and armored cars drove us into a dark basement. Only then did we learn from a policeman why the Ukrainians risked soldiers’ lives to get us out of the hospital.
– If they catch you, they will put you in front of the camera and make you say that everything you photographed is a lie. The policeman said that everything you did in Mariupol will be lost.
The policeman, who once begged us to show the world what conditions were like in the dying city, now begged us to travel and followed us toward the line of thousands of cars ready to leave Mariupol. This was March 15th, and we had no idea if we were going to get out alive.
Raised in Kharkiv
When I was a teenager I grew up in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, 30 miles away[30 كم]From the Russian border, I learned to handle weapons as part of the school curriculum. It seemed pointless. I thought Ukraine was surrounded by friends.
Since then, I have covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to show the world the devastation there. When the Americans and Europeans evacuated their embassies in Kyiv this winter, and when I looked at maps of Russian power-building outside my hometown, I thought of a “poor country.”
In the early days of the war, the Russians bombed the huge Freedom Park in Kharkiv, where I would hang out until I was twenty.
I knew that the Russian forces would view Mariupol as strategically important because of its location on the Sea of Azov. On the evening of February 23, I drove with my longtime colleague, Ukrainian Associated Press photographer Yevgeny Malolitka, in his white Volkswagen truck.
Along the way we started worrying about spare tires and found a guy in a nearby village who wanted to sell us this in the middle of the night. We explained to him and a man behind the table in a nightclub that we were preparing for war, and they looked at us like we were crazy.
At half past three in the night we drove to Mariupol, and an hour later the war was real.
Nearly a quarter of Mariupol’s 430,000 residents fled during the early days, while they still could. Few, however, believed that war would come to the city, and when they realized they had made a mistake, it was too late.
With one bomb at a time, the Russians cut off electricity, water supplies, food supplies, and finally cell phone coverage, and the radio and television tower. The few other journalists in town walked out before the last contact with the outside world was cut off, and the siege was complete.
With the siege the Russians achieved two things: first chaos, as the people did not know what was happening, and then panic. At first I couldn’t understand how everything fell apart so quickly, now I know it was because all the connections were broken.
The other thing the Russians have achieved is impunity. When no information came from the city, nor pictures of destroyed buildings and dying children, the Russian troops could do as they pleased. If we weren’t there, nothing would have happened. That’s why I took this risk to be able to tell the world what we were seeing, and that’s why the Russians got angry and started chasing after us.
I’ve never felt that breaking the silence was more important than that.
And here the Russian president is “hanged” outside the embassy in Oslo:
Death quickly came to Mariupol. On February 27 we saw a doctor trying to save the life of a little girl who was riddled with shrapnel. she died. Another child died, and then a third child died. Ambulances stopped transporting the wounded because people could no longer contact them and the bombed streets could no longer be reached.
Doctors begged us to film families carrying dead and wounded, and they let us use generators to charge our cameras. They said no one knows what’s going on here.
Bombs hit both the hospital and the buildings around us. The windows of our truck were shattered, a hole in the side of the car and a hole in the tire. We’d run occasionally to photograph a house burning, and then ran back as explosions rang out.
Mobile coverage was still the only place in town, outside a grocery store. Once a day, we drove there and sat behind the stairs to send pictures and videos to the world.
On March 3, mobile phone signals there also disappeared. Then we tried to send videos from the 7th floor of the hospital, and from there we saw how the last remnants of the middle-class city of Mariupol were shattered.
loot and attack
The supermarket next to the port was looted, we hurried there and found several people with shopping carts full of electronics, food and clothes.
A grenade exploded on the roof of the building, I threw myself on the ground and waited for another crash while cursing myself for not capturing this with my camera.
Then another bomb hit an apartment building near me.
A teenager passed by with a full shopping cart. “My friends were there, and the grenade fell 10 meters from us, and I have no idea what happened to them,” he said.
We hurried back to the hospital, and within 20 minutes the wounded began arriving, some on wheels in shopping carts.
The only contact we had with the outside world for several days was via satellite phone. And the only place the phone worked was in an open area, near a bomb crater. There I sat and tried to keep myself as small as possible while trying to make contact.
Everyone asked me when the war would end, but I had no answer to give them.
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maternity ward bombing
I watched death now in the hospital, I saw bodies in the streets and dozens of bodies buried in mass graves.
On March 9th, two air strikes destroyed the plastic we had lost over the broken side window of our car. I saw the fireball for the first time, before I could feel the pain in my ears, on my skin, and on my face.
We saw smoke rising from the hospital’s maternity ward, and when we arrived, rescue crews were pulling pregnant bloodstained women out of the rubble.
Our batteries were running out now, and we also didn’t have the opportunity to send photos and recordings. Curfew was only minutes away, but a policeman heard what we were talking about.
– He said that this would change the course of the war, and he took us to a place where we could charge the batteries and where there was an Internet connection.
We have now documented so many dead and dead children that I could not understand that more deaths would change anything. But I was wrong.
Via three cell phones connected in series, we transmitted the recordings, before losing contact again and taking refuge in an empty hotel basement with an aquarium full of dead goldfish. We had no idea at the time about the campaign launched by Russia.
The Russian Embassy in London tweeted that the Associated Press photos of Mariupol were fake and that the pregnant woman we photographed was an actress. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations presented the photos to the Security Council and confirmed that the attack on the maternity ward had not taken place.
On March 11, our editor asked us to find the women who survived the attack on the hospital’s maternity ward to prove that our photos are real. Then I understood that the photos were important enough to provoke a reaction from the Russian government.
We found the women in a hospital on the front, some with children and some giving birth. We also learned that a woman had lost her child and had died.
We went up to the seventh floor again to send the video, and from there I saw a tank after another with a Z sign rolling along the hospital area. We were trapped, dozens of doctors and hundreds of patients and we.
The Ukrainian soldiers who protected the hospital are now gone. The road to our car, where we had food, water and equipment, was covered by Russian snipers who beat a nurse outside.
After several hours in the dark, as we heard explosions outside, the soldiers came and took us. They shouted in Ukrainian, but didn’t feel like we survived. It felt like we were moving from one dangerous area to another. There is no longer a safe place in Mariupol, one can die at any time.
I was very grateful to the soldiers who took us out, but I also felt ashamed to leave. We piled into the crowded Hyundai of three and joined the 5-kilometer traffic jam on our way out of town. About 30 thousand people left Mariupol that day, so much so that the Russian soldiers at the roadblocks did not have time to properly check the cars.
We passed 15 barriers, and each time the mother of the family sat in the front seat and prayed, loud enough to hear us.
At all the barricades there were heavily armed soldiers, and I knew that all hope that the Ukrainian forces would be able to retake the city was gone.
At sunrise, we reached the bridge that the Ukrainian forces had blown up to stop Russia’s advance. A queue of about 20 Red Cross cars was waiting, all of them. By driving through fields and back roads we passed.
When we got to Checkpoint No. 16, the soldiers spoke in Ukrainian. I was so relieved, the mother in the front seat started crying. We were the last journalists to leave Mariupol, and now there is no one left.
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