February 4, 2023

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Ukraine’s Evgeny Maloletka: agency photographer of 2022 | Ukraine

In early 2022, the Ukrainian photojournalist Evgeny Maloletka was covering violence in Kazakhstan when his attention turned back home: there were several reports signalling that Russia was preparing an invasion.

He didn’t have to think twice: he knew he had to be back in his home country. By mid-January, he was already working on assignment for the Associated Press in the city of Kharkiv and the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, where there was a growing tension among Russian proxies.

An instructor shows a group of women how to use weapons during training in Kharkiv, 30 January

“When we did a story about Ukraine’s preparation for war and how the country prepares to repel the attack of Russia in case of anything, it looked unserious,” Maloletka says. “Both protests and preparations of little groups in Kharkiv didn’t cause any serious reaction, and people lived their regular lives – went to theatres, clubs – and all that was pretty casual and people said ‘there will be no war’ and we didn’t entirely believe it ourselves.”

Maloletka was based in Kharkiv, 25 miles from some of the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed at the border, as diplomatic efforts to find a solution continued.

Demonstrators holding Ukrainian national flags march in Kharkiv, 5 February
Young people dance in the Moskvich nightclub in Kharkiv, 30 January.
Actors rehearse Gioachino Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola at the National Academic opera and ballet theatre in Kharkiv, 5 February.

  • Left: people dance in the nightclub Moskvich in Kharkiv, 30 January. Right: actors rehearse Gioachino Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola at the National Academic opera and ballet theatre in Kharkiv, 5 February

When Maloletka and the AP team estimated that the invasion was imminent, they moved to the city of Mariupol, in south-east Ukraine. They thought that if war broke out, Mariupol would be key because it was a strategic seaport. They were not wrong.

Smoke rises from an air defence base in the aftermath of a Russian strike in Mariupol, 24 February

Russia attacks

Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on 24 February, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes and shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. Along with Mstyslav Chernov, a video journalist, and Vasilisa Stepanenko, a video producer, Maloletka arrived in Mariupol one hour before the invasion.

People prepare for the night in an improvised bomb shelter in a sports centre in Mariupol, 27 February.

  • People prepare for the night in an improvised bomb shelter in a sports centre, which could accommodate up to 2,000 people, in Mariupol, 27 February

“One of the places where people were coming looking for shelter and food in a safe place was Terra Sport – a sports club, which turned into a shelter for 2,000 people. Gyms were turned into huge rooms where people were staying with their pets, kids and toys – everything was stacked. There was no power, no decent ventilation; sometimes there was nothing to breathe. Because with such a crowd there was almost no normal ventilation.”

A child sleeps in an armchair as others stand around in a shelter during Russian shelling in Mariupol, 24 February.
Medical workers move a patient in a basement of a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward and used as a bomb shelter in Mariupol, Ukraine, 1 March
Paramedics treat an elderly woman wounded by shelling before transferring her to a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward, 2 March

  • Left: medical workers move a patient in a basement of a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward and used as a bomb shelter in Mariupol, 1 March. Right: paramedics treat an elderly woman wounded by shelling before transferring her to a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward, 2 March

Explosions were on the outskirts of the city, and the team immediately moved to cover the incoming strikes. Some of the initial images that Maloletka captured showed destroyed radar stations near the airport. In a few days, they knew the situation would get worse, with increasing shelling from the Russians. Day by day, the city was being surrounded by Russia’s army.

Serhii cries on his son’s lifeless body lying on a stretcher at a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward in Mariupol, 2 March.

“I remember how Serhii brought three teenagers in his car – one of them was dead right away … Iliya was dead right away, but David and Artem were badly injured. These teens played football at the school where a shell strike killed Ilya and injured two boys. Thank god David and Artem survived, but Iliya – no. And Serhii, cried over his dead child’s body, and then we found out when we were taking the bodies from the morgue, that Iliya was, his body was brought to this common mass grave. And Serhii tried not to remember after this and went on a long voyage because he is a sailor. His family, all the rest are in Canada.”

People queue to receive hot food in an improvised bomb shelter in Mariupol, 7 March
Bodies of those killed are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, 9 March

  • Left: people queue to receive hot food in an improvised bomb shelter in Mariupol, 7 March. Right: bodies of those killed are placed into a mass grave, 9 March

People had been unable to bury their dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces.

An apartment building explodes after a Russian army tank fires in Mariupol, 11 March

  • An apartment building explodes after a Russian army tank, seen below in the next image, fires in Mariupol, 11 March

The Russian tank that attacked the apartment building.

“That night five tanks went to the streets and started a chaotic shelling. Tanks shot at streets and residential apartment buildings. A shell hit the corner of an apartment, the one in the photo. We found out later that during that shelling that strike killed two elderly women who couldn’t go down to the basement. Their burned bodies were buried right by the building.”

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman, Irina Kalinina, from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, 9 March. The woman and her baby did not survive.

  • Emergency workers and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman, Irina Kalinina, from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, 9 March. Kalinina and her baby did not survive

“On 9 March a Russian plane carried out an airstrike and dropped a few powerful bombs in the centre of Mariupol. Maybe one, maybe a few planes. One bomb hit the courtyard of a maternity hospital. In this photo, Irina Kalinina, 32 years old, is carried by rescuers hurrying to get her to the ambulance. I remember that Irina was still alive at that moment, she was touching her belly and her eyes. Of course, she was taken to the hospital and doctors tried to save her, but she lost a lot of blood, and Irina and her baby weren’t saved. Her husband, Ivan, couldn’t find Irina, was running around the morgues and hospitals trying to find her, and eventually in the morgue of hospital number two he managed to identify Irina, take her back, and together with neighbours, bury her at one of the cemeteries of Mariupol.”

Medical workers hold newborn Alana close to her mother after a caesarean section at a hospital in Mariupol, 11 March

“During the C-section, they took the baby out but it was not breathing. And for the whole minute doctors were rubbing and slapping the baby, trying to make it breathe. There was complete silence in the room, and everyone was saying: ‘Come on, come on, you can do it!’ Then a midwife slapped the baby and it started crying, and everyone in the operating room was happy. The hospital we filmed in was on the outskirts of the city, often there were attacks and strikes from artillery, same as nearby districts. Sometimes our walls shook very much, sometimes there were strikes near and at the hospital. Even our car which was standing in the yard was slightly damaged.”

There was a moment when they were the only international journalists left in Mariupol, where their main focus was people’s suffering. They spent time in hospitals, shelters, apartments, houses, and Maloletka captured some of the most dramatic photos of the war.

People take cover on the floor of a hospital during shelling by Russian forces in Mariupol, 4 March.
A medical worker reacts after he was unable to save the life of Marina Yatsko’s 18-month-old son, Kirill, who was fatally wounded by shelling, at a hospital in Mariupol, 4 March.

  • Left: people take cover on the floor of a Mariupol hospital during shelling by Russian forces. Right: a medical worker reacts after he was unable to save the life of Marina Yatsko’s 18-month-old son, Kirill, who was fatally wounded by shelling, at a hospital in Mariupol, 4 March

Serhiy Kralya, 41, injured during shelling by Russian forces, after surgery at a hospital in Mariupol, 11 March.
Anastasia Yaroshova cries as she hugs her child in a corridor of a hospital. Anastasia’s other child was killed during shelling in Mariupol

  • Left: Serhiy Kralya, 41, injured during shelling by Russian forces, after surgery at the hospital. Right: Anastasia Yarashova cries as she hugs her child in a corridor, 11 March. Anastasia’s other child was killed during shelling in Mariupol

“Patients with whom we talked and whom we saw in the hospital lost a lot more – like Anastasia Yaroshova, who lost her child and the child of her brother. It was an airstrike which hit her residential building, and children were buried under the rubble in a basement. Doctors who sometimes couldn’t save children cried together with their parents and with us.”

Maloletka and the AP team spent 20 days telling the siege of the city, until they had to leave because they were told that the Russians were hunting them for publishing a detailed account of the atrocities happening in Mariupol. They managed to get out through 15 Russian checkpoints to Zaporizhzhia, a city that was then controlled by the Ukrainians.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv, 9 April.

The president

Since Mariupol, Maloletka kept on covering the war on different frontlines, from Kharkiv, Donbas and Zaporizhzhia to Mykolaiv and Kherson, and also in the capital.

“We were able to speak to him [Zelenskiy] for about 20 minutes. He looked tired at that time, it was just before Boris Johnson came to Kyiv to visit, and he had some time before so agreed to meet with us. The atmosphere in the building was far from how I remembered it before – everything was covered up, there were sandbags on the windows, and the central hall was in semi-darkness. Low bright lamps stand on along the corridor to show the way. The Russians retreated from Kyiv, but it turned out that the front line had to be removed. This feeling of war was in the air. we talked about Mariupol. He told us “Mariupol is the heart of Ukraine. As long as it beats, then Ukraine holds on.”

Danyk Rak, 12, holds a cat standing on the debris of his house destroyed by Russian shelling in the village of Novoselivka, near Chernihiv, 13 April.

  • Danyk Rak, 12, holds a cat standing on the debris of his house destroyed by Russian shelling in the village of Novoselivka, near Chernihiv, 13 April

“Danyk’s family home was destroyed and his mother seriously wounded as Russian forces bombarded Kyiv’s suburbs and surrounding towns in a failed effort to seize the capital. I received many reactions to this photo.”

A grandmother, mother and child at a centre for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, 3 May.
Ukrainian medic Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, in Kyiv, 8 July.

  • A Ukrainian medic, Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, in Kyiv, 8 July

“Taira is one of the people who also was sacrificing herself to save as many lives in Mariupol as possible. But, unfortunately, on 15 or 16 March, she was held at a checkpoint by Russian military and she was captured. Ukrainian special service managed to liberate her, but she also went through oppression, tortures and very strong interrogations like the military. She is a civilian medic.”

Maksym and Andrii, 11, salute to Ukrainian soldiers, holding plastic guns, as they play at the self-made checkpoint on the highway in Kharkiv region, 20 July.

Kharkiv

  • Maksym and Andrii, 11, salute Ukrainian soldiers, holding plastic guns, as they play at a self-made checkpoint on the highway in Kharkiv region, 20 July

By mid-May, Ukrainian forces had been pushed back from Kharkiv and its outlying towns and villages.

“When we were riding one of the roads at the frontline, we saw kids who were standing with a self-made toy gun who made a checkpoint on the road. People stopped to give them a little money, they were gathering money to buy night-vision goggles or some other things, because their relatives are fighting as well.”

A wheat field burns after Russian shelling a few miles from the border in the Kharkiv region, 29 July.
Ukrainian service personnel drive a tank in Izium, 14 September.

Izium

Retaking Izium was one of Ukraine’s most significant successes in pushing back the Russian forces since the beginning of the invasion.

“Izium was returned by the Ukrainian army quite painlessly, but the city was very ruined, and people who lived there were intimidated. And when the city returned under the control of the Ukrainian army, sometimes it feels like they didn’t know how to react, if it is good or bad, after spending more than six months under shelling, under threat of Russia, under intimidation, they didn’t know how to react. Some people were of course happy that Ukraine has returned, but most people were just afraid. We filmed a meeting between daughter and mother who didn’t see each other for half a year.”

Maria hugs her parents, Marina and Alexander, during their first meeting since the beginning of the war, 14 September.

  • Maria hugs her parents, Marina and Alexander, in their first meeting since the start of the war in Izium, 14 September.

In September, Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass burial site near the recaptured city of Izium that contained hundreds of graves.

Emergency workers have a rest during the exhumation in the recently retaken area of Izium, 16 September.

“In Izium’s forests was hidden a big cemetery, where victims of torture were brought after shelling or just people who died. More than 400 graves were at this cemetery. They were hidden in a forest and it was not easy to find them, but during the exhumation were found people who were tortured and killed, apart from people who died just from shelling. In Izium we made a story about how Russian special forces were using torture to spread fear among the peaceful population by torturing people, finding former military and just people who didn’t support Russia.”

A woman collects wood for heating from a destroyed school where Russian forces were based in Izium, 19 September.
A woman carries humanitarian aid, 2 October

  • Left: a woman collects wood for heating from a destroyed school where Russian forces were based in Izium, 19 September. Right: a woman carries humanitarian aid, 2 October.

A cat sits on a chair in a kitchen at Pishchanskyi church in Izium, 21 September.

At one point, this church and monastery compound had become a shelter for about 100 people, including 40 children.

A man rides a motorbike in front of houses destroyed during the fighting in the recently liberated town of Arhanhelske, 5 December.

Kherson

“I returned to Kherson, not right after the liberation, but a little bit later. Euphoria from the liberation had passed, but you still could see how happy people were that Ukraine has returned. People had been waiting for the return of Ukraine for nine months. And regardless of all the suffering people went through during war, we only heard one thing: ‘It’s better to be under shelling than under Russia.’ Just as in Izium, people in Kherson went through lots of torture; we examined lots of places where people were tortured. And people told us horrible stories. Some people still can’t sometimes come back to their senses about what has happened. And we have met people who got their skulls broke, whose relatives were killed or taken to Russia.”

Relatives of Elizaveta, 94, transport her by a cargo cart to an evacuation train in Kherson, 1 December.
Digits used to keep track of time, scratched by detainees on the wall of a basement in a building used, according to a war crimes prosecutor, by Russian forces as a place of torture in Kherson, 8 December.

  • Left: relatives of Elizaveta, 94, transport her by a cargo cart to an evacuation train in Kherson, 1 December. Right: digits used to keep track of time, scratched by detainees on the wall of a basement in a building used, according to a war crimes prosecutor, by Russian forces as a place of torture in Kherson, 8 December

Left: Dr Tymur Chumarin, bottom centre, and medical workers pose for a photo at a hospital in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, on Friday 11 March 2022. Right: medical personnel pose for a group photo holding a copy of an image taken in Mariupol in March, at the new regional hospital in Kyiv in December
Left: Dr Tymur Chumarin, bottom centre, and medical workers pose for a photo at a hospital in Mariupol, 11 March. Right: medical personnel pose holding a copy of an image taken back in Mariupol in March at the new regional hospital in Kyiv, 13 December.

“On 11 March when we were surrounded and stuck in the hospital, we decided to stay overnight in the surgery department, who had a break due to occupation – no new patients were coming – waiting for extraction by the special police force. On the opening day of the new regional hospital in Kyiv, with many of the same surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses, we brought the picture taken on 11 March on the last day under Ukrainian control as a present.

“For me it was really important to meet all the medics who we spent so many days or weeks to get on the floor with the patients and with the doctors. Because, really, you know, sometimes we think that we are part of one big family.”