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20 Days in Mariupol

The Mariupol bombardment was relentless, and it focused mostly on civilian infrastructure, on hospitals, schools, theaters, and residential buildings.
The Mariupol bombardment was relentless, and it focused mostly on civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools, theaters, and residential buildings. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo
Julia Ioffe
December 27, 2023

As Mstyslav Chernov tells the story, it wasn’t hard to see what was going to happen. It was February 2022, and Russia had pulled nearly 200,000 troops toward the borders of Ukraine while Vladimir Putin made impossible demands of Kyiv and the West. An invasion was coming; Putin was going to finish what he started in 2014. And he was going to try to get Mariupol, too. The city, an industrial town on the banks of the Azov Sea, fended Putin off in 2014, and, given its strategic position between annexed Crimea and the parts of the Donbas that Russia had already taken, Mariupol was key to cutting a land route to the Crimean Peninsula. 

So Chernov, a videographer for the Associated Press, his colleague, A.P. photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko set off for Mariupol the night before the invasion. En route, they stopped to buy spare tires for their van and other supplies in the middle of the night. When the cashier asked them what they were doing so late at night, they told her: A war was coming. She didn’t believe them; most people in Ukraine didn’t. But the war came, one hour after Chernov, Maloletka, and Stepanenko arrived in the city.