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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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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 had been unable to bury their dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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’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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
In September, Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass burial site near the recaptured city of Izium that contained hundreds of graves.
“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.”
At one point, this church and monastery compound had become a shelter for about 100 people, including 40 children.
“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.”
“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.”