The dead were largely abandoned in the streets. There were no funerals. No memorials. No public gatherings to mourn those killed by Russia’s relentless attacks on the port city that had become a symbol of Ukraine’s ferocious resistance. It was too dangerous. Instead, authorities collected the bodies in a truck as best they could and buried them in narrow trenches dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol.
The mass grave trenches told the story of a city under siege. There was the 18-month-old hit by shrapnel; the 16-year-old killed by an explosion while playing football; the girl no older than six who was rushed to a hospital in blood-soaked pajamas patterned with unicorns. There was the woman wrapped in a bedsheet, her legs neatly bound at the ankles with a scrap of white fabric.
Workers tossed all of them into the trenches, moving quickly to get back to shelter before the next round of shelling. The world would have seen none of this, would have seen next to nothing at all from Mariupol as the siege set in, if it had not been for Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, the Associated Press team who raced to the city when the invasion began and stayed long after it had become one of the most dangerous places on earth.
For more than two weeks, they were the only international media in the city, and the only journalists able to transmit video and still photos to the outside world. They were there when the young girl in the unicorn pajamas was rushed to the hospital. They were there after the maternity hospital was attacked, and for countless airstrikes that pulverized the city. They were there when gunmen began stalking the city in search of those who could prove Russia's narrative to be false.
Moscow hated their work. The Russian embassy in London tweeted images of AP photos with the word “FAKE” superimposed in red. At a U.N. Security Council meeting, a top Russian diplomat held up photos of the maternity hospital insisting they were fake.
Eventually, the team were urged to leave. A policeman explained why. “If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie. All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain.”
It was terrible to leave. They knew that once they were gone, there would be almost no independent reporting from inside the city. But they felt they had no choice. So they left, slipping away on a day when thousands of civilians were fleeing the city, passing Russian roadblocks, one after another.
Their work and the people they met speak for the agony of Mariupol. Like the doctor who tried to save the life of the little girl in her pajamas. As he pumped oxygen into her, he looked straight into the AP camera. He stormed with expletive-laced fury: “Show this to Putin: the eyes of this child and the doctors crying!”