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From the file

Mariupol | Two atrocities in the port city of Mariupol epitomise Russia’s violence in Ukraine. This is the story of those atrocities and of Mariupol’s truth

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/AP/Shutterstock (12847727c) Mariana Vishegirskaya stands outside a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Vishegirskaya survived the shelling and later gave birth to a girl in another hospital in Mariupol. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov) Russia War, Mariupol, Ukraine – 09 Mar 2022

Mariupol

Mariupol

Two atrocities in the port city of Mariupol epitomise Russia’s violence in Ukraine. This is the story of those atrocities and of Mariupol’s truth

Date commissioned
22 March 2022

Date published
25 April 2022


Why this story?

Two months ago Mariupol was a modern, thriving coastal city. Now it lies in ruins, arguably the scene of some of the worst atrocities committed by Russian forces since the invasion of Ukraine. If you look at drone footage and satellite images taken from above the city you get a sense of the scale of physical destruction. Pockmarked, blackened apartment blocks and entire neighbourhoods flattened to the ground stretch into the distance. What you can’t possibly tell from that height though is the scale of human suffering. For this episode of the Slow Newscast we decided to spend some time trying to understand some of that suffering. We have focused on two events a week apart: the bombing of a maternity hospital on 9 March and the bombing of the theatre on 16 March. One of the questions obviously raised by these two appalling events is whether they were war crimes. All over Ukraine groups of lawyers, journalists and human rights activists are gathering evidence which they hope will be used to prosecute Russians in a future war crimes trial. But a bigger question, raised especially in the case of Mariupol, is what happens when a war crime has been committed but no one can be put on trial? Jasper Corbett, Editor

Transcript

[Sounds of explosions, rubble falling and sirens]

Basia Cummings, narrating: This is carnage. 

It’s 9 March in the afternoon and a Russian plane has just dropped an enormous bomb on the city of Mariupol.

The video I’m watching is shot on a smartphone. 

And in the foreground, there’s a silver people-carrier.

Behind that, an apartment block. And there’s this dark smoke billowing up from behind it.

Everything is grey. The car, the sky, the road. There’s shards of glass raining down. 

But I have to say it’s not the image that’s striking here… it’s the noise.

A cacophony of sirens and car alarms.

[More sirens and alarms]

It’s the soundscape of shock… and horror. And if horror was to have a sound in the dictionary, I think this would be it. Its defining point.

[Voices of people crying out amidst the wreckage]

Basia Cummings, narrating: Later in the film, the reporters shooting the video – who are from the Associated Press – walk into a square surrounded by pale green and yellow buildings.

The windows are blown out, debris or dust is falling like snow, dusting everyone who’s now congregating in the immediate aftermath of this attack… 

Some people are being treated by the military and others are carried out of the buildings on stretchers.

And at first, it’s hard to see what exactly has been hit.

But then, watching the video, it dawns. 

Rescue workers are trying to get a heavily pregnant woman down narrow stairs on a stretcher. She’s lying on a colourful red blanket – it looks like it might be in the pattern of a strawberry, or maybe a watermelon. 

She’s covered in dust, and she’s gravely wounded. 

The building is a maternity hospital. 

[More hurried voices]

Basia Cummings, narrating: I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to The Slow Newscast from Tortoise. 

There is a cliché when you witness conflict: that the truth is obscured by the fog of war.

But with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it feels different. 

There is a hailstorm of evidence emerging: the massacre of Bucha, the sinking of the Moskva, the assault on the Donbas.

But if there is one place that feels like it has epitomised the remorselessness of Russian violence – and Ukraine’s remarkable defiance – it’s the city of Mariupol. 

But at what cost? 

Well, we don’t yet know. 

And as I record this, the city is on the brink of defeat. By the time you listen to this it will be in Russian hands. 

And then, there will be a clear up – of bodies, of evidence.

For a few weeks now at Tortoise, we have focused on this one city. 

And we stopped trying to investigate it as a war zone, but instead – to think of it as a crime scene. 

And to understand: who the victims are, who is responsible, and who may eventually hold the perpetrators to account? 

In this week’s episode: Mariupol’s truth. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Five months before the Russian invasion, the city looked very different to how it does now. 

On the Azov sea, with parks and fountains, a grand theatre with a neo-classical facade… ice cream huts along the promenade…

Looming over the city, the Azovstal iron and steel works – one of the largest in Europe. 

Maria Kutnyakova: Okay. So I’m 30 years old and all these years I live in Mariupol. All my family lives in Mariupol. Everyone from Mariupol, like centuries…

Basia Cummings, narrating: This is Maria Kutnyakova (Kut-nya-koh-va), born and raised in Mariupol like generations of her family before her. 

Maria Kutnyakova: It’s very multinationality region. It’s lots of like Greeks, like German people, Polish, Jewish, Russians, Ukrainians. In my blood is everyone.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Most people in the city speak Russian, and, just 40 miles away… across the sea… is Russia. 

And here, the deep relationship with their neighbour has for a long time been fraught with violence. 

In 2014, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine – and a separatist movement, pledging allegiance to Russia, seized Donetsk, the largest city in the region. 

Mariupol at that time was damaged, but it resisted the separatists. 

And as the conflict died down… the residents, like Maria, set about to rebuild it.

Maria Kutnyakova: So a lot of people return and this last eight years we built another Mariupol,

Basia Cummings, narrating: …better and more beautiful than before.

Maria Kutnyakova: More beautiful, more safe. Very strange to hear now… Every year we choose a capital of culture and Mariupol was capital of culture. And you know we have a lot of festivals, you know, like theatre festival, music festival…some poets came to Mariupol. So my city was, every year, better and better for life. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: So when late last year, western governments began to brief that Russia was amassing troops along the Ukrainian border, Maria thought she knew what to expect.

By early February, US President, Joe Biden, was clear that Russia was going to invade.

President Joe Biden: We are ready to respond decisively to Russian attack on Ukraine which is still very much a possibility. For all the events of the last few weeks and months this has been our approach.

Basia Cummings, narrating: 16 February was Maria’s 30th birthday and she partied as if it was going to be her last chance…

Maria Kutnyakova: It’s funny because as I said President Biden’s had said Russians come to Ukraine on February 16th, and this is my birthday and I go to the pub and I was like last, party. And it’s really now in my life, like last party…

Basia Cummings, narrating: She describes how she put on an embroidered dress that belonged to her grandmother – a Ukrainian national dress. An act of defiance. And the joy that night was defiant too…

Just over a week later, Russia launched its invasion. Troops quickly headed towards Mariupol, a strategic city in that part of Ukraine. Many residents left. 

But by the second week of March, around 300,000 people, three quarters of the city, remained. 

And for Maria’s family, staying was about taking a stand.

Maria Kutnyakova: Me and my family we have a conversation we should go away from Mariupol like, cause it’s not a safety, but then we’re like, no, fuck Russians. This is our city. We didn’t want these fucking jerks live in our part. 

Like, fuck you, Russians. And you know, the Azov battalion, they saved Mariupol eight years ago. And when this time war started, we have the same conversation and was like, no, we believe in Ukrainian army. This is our city. We will not go anywhere. Now I understand that it was stupid.

Basia Cummings, narrating: That battalion Maria mentions, the Azov battalion – they’re a pretty notorious far-right militia that formed in 2014 to fight against the Russian backed separatists. They’re thought to make up a very small part of Ukraine’s armed forces. But they’ve become a key part of Putin’s justification for the invasion – because he’s saying that he’s ‘denazifying’ the country. 

But to Maria, these battalions are the city’s defenders. 

And so, she stayed with her family.

In the first fortnight of the invasion, two attempts to create humanitarian evacuation corridors failed and the Russians continued to destroy the city.

On the second of March, one neighbourhood was reportedly shelled for 15 hours straight.

Russian bombs continued to hit Maria’s neighbourhood. And life in the city was becoming impossible. There was no electricity, gas or running water. The mobile phone signal was intermittent … there was no internet. 

They were cold and hungry… they had just biscuits to eat, they spent their days counting Russia’s warplanes. 

They even grew to recognise them. 

Maria Kutnyakova: And, you know, we was eeerrgh, but it was bombs like every hour with planes with I dunno, some artillery. And we was so crazy is that we understand what the noise, what exactly the artillery is by the noise, we understand whether the plane has four bombs or eight bombs

Basia Cummings, narrating: She knew the sounds of the planes so well, she could identify them just from the number of bombs they dropped.

And outside her building, the devastation was mounting. 

Civilians were caught up in an attack on their city that was by now, unrelenting and indiscriminate. 

After Mariupol lost water and power a week into the invasion, civilians were drinking out of puddles, cooking scraps of food over open fires on the street. 

Images began to emerge that had been taken across the first weeks of the attack.

The body of a six year old girl in unicorn pyjamas lay, lifeless, on a gurney.

A 16-year-old, killed playing football with his friends, lay under a blood stained sheet.

Building after building destroyed. 

And on 2 March, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson claimed that Putin had now carried out war crimes.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson: And I can tell him that what we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime, and the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians, Mister Speaker, In my view already fully qualifies as a war crime. And I know that the ICC prosecutor is already investigating and I’m sure the whole house will support that.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Mariupol appeared to be becoming Exhibit A of Putin’s ruthlessness. 

But the Kremlin always has a counter-narrative. 

And five days after Boris Johnson’s accusation, at the UN Security Council, Russia put forward a story…

Well, it was a story, and a set up. 

Vasily Nebenzya: The critical situation for people in other regions of the country is that if they are also blockaded by nationalist battalions then we know that Ukrainian radicals day by day are showing their true face more clearly. The local civilians… local inhabitants… have said that they forced out the staff of a maternity clinic and then put a firing site in that clinic and also completely destroyed one of the nursery schools in that city. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian UN representative, claimed that the Ukraine Armed Forces had taken over a maternity hospital in Mariupol. 

Hospital No. 1, he said, was being used as a military base.

Two days later, on the morning of 9 March, Russia promised a “regime of silence” – another attempt at a humanitarian corridor.

But then, at midday, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry claimed, without evidence, that another hospital – hospital No.3 – was also being used as a military base. 

No.3 had a maternity ward, a women’s health clinic, and a unit for children with autoimmune diseases. 

But Russia was claiming it was a firing position for Ukrainian forces.

The narrative had been laid… and later that afternoon

[Sound of massive explosion]

Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s thought from the size of the crater – that was allegedly two storeys deep – that the bomb tweighed at least 450 kilos. 

It was undoubtedly a civilian target.

But the Kremlin wanted people to think otherwise. Because if there was a military presence, Russia could claim it was a legitimate military target. 

They seemed, perhaps, to have an eye on the Geneva Convention, which protects hospitals from targeted attacks.

Then, the Russian Embassy Twitter account in the UK went a step further. 

And I have to say, when I saw this allegation begin to circulate, I began to feel a bit sick. Because this, it felt, was a new level of disdain for victims. Like all rules had been thrown out of the window. 

Because this tweet that was now circulating on Twitter was claiming that one of the pregnant women photographed fleeing the hospital, a woman whose face was cut and marked with blood, was an actor in “some very realistic make-up”. A crisis actor. 

They claimed she was also playing the part of a different pregnant woman, one who was carried out of the hospital on a stretcher with an enormous wound, a woman who later died.

Journalist: How can you possibly justify the bombing of a maternity ward and a children’s hospital?

Basia Cummings, narrating: And Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismissed the outcry over the hospital bombing as “pathetic”. 

Sergei Lavrov, translator speaking: Thank you very much, with regards to the maternity hospital, it’s not the first time we see pathetic outcries concerning the so-called atrocities

Basia Cummings, narrating: He said Russia had already warned the security council that the Azov Battalion had taken over the hospital.

Sergei Lavrov, translator speaking: On the 7th or the 6th, I don’t recall exactly now, at the Security Council of the UN, facts were offered by our delegation saying that that maternity hospital was uh… taken over by the Azov Battalion and other radicals

***

Basia Cummings, narrating: The story circulated by Russia – seeded at the security council, spread on social media – it’s a lie. 

The pregnant woman accused of being an actor is a woman called Mariana. She had an Instagram account, where she had been posting about her pregnancy for months. And weeks after the attack she denied that she was the woman pictured on the stretcher. 

[Mariana speaking in Russian] 

Basia Cummings, narrating: And that hospital mentioned by the Russians at the UN Security Council – that was hospital No.1, not hospital No.3, the one which was shelled on 9 March. So none of it adds up. 

It’s confusing, but of course – that’s a part of the plan. To kick up dust in the face of truth, and evidence. 

As for the idea that the Azov battalion was holed up in the hospital, the Russian Embassy in Israel tweeted an image of a tank in front of a building, to try and claim it as evidence. 

But that’s not true either. The investigative group Bellingcat located the photo – it had actually been taken six miles away from the hospital. 

In fact, there’s no evidence at all that hospital No.3 was in use or being used by Azov fighters. 

Puchkov Dmitry Aleksandrovich (voiceover): My name is Puchkov Dmitry Aleksandrovich. I’m a third-year intern, and my specialties are obstetrics and gynaecology

Basia Cummings, narrating: My producer spoke to a doctor who just two days before the bombing, had been working inside Hospital No.3. 

He was on leave the day of the bombing. What he told us has been voiced here by an actor. 

Puchkov Dmitry Aleksandrovich (voiceover): In maternity hospital No.3 I didn’t see any wounded soldiers. If you mean this hospital and not the regional one, then no, I saw there no wounded soldiers.

Basia Cummings, narrating: After the bombing he worked at another nearby hospital, where the injured from No.3 were brought. It was all just mothers and children, he said. 

Puchkov Dmitry Aleksandrovich (voiceover): Right on March 9, six people were brought to us. Among them was a woman with severe injuries of her lower extremities. In addition to the traumatic lower extremity fractures, there was hit a vessel that resulted in massive bleeding. This woman had full-term, and surgeons had to make a caesarean section. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to save either the woman who died from massive bleeding or the child who also died as a result of this bleeding. Also, we operated on one woman as there were signs of foetal stress. She and her child are fine. On the same day, we successfully delivered another baby. A bit later we delivered four more babies and performed two more caesarean sections. There were women with various fractures, traumas, shrapnel wounds – the ones caused by small pieces of exploded bombs. People with such injuries were brought to us. Pregnant women who weren’t injured but stayed in the basements for a long time came to us as well. Men came and asked if they could bring their wives and we could help them here. We accepted them all and we all tried to help. Women with gynaecological pathologies like bleeding and infectious diseases of the female genital organs applied, too. We did our best to help them.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Ukrainian soldiers did guard hospitals in Mariupol, but that’s all they did. They guarded. 

And when Russian soldiers took over the hospital where he worked, Dmitry and his few remaining colleagues continued to work. 

Puchkov Dmitry Aleksandrovich (voiceover): From a purely human point of view, something flew in and destroyed the maternity hospital and there was a newborn pathology department. These were babies who had been on oxygen supply, who couldn’t breathe on their own. And what happened to them after all that? Just imagine that.

Basia Cummings, narrating: At least five civilians were killed by the bombing. The woman on the stretcher – the one Russia lied about – she died a few days after the attack, soon after her baby. 

Speaking to the Associated Press, the medics treating her said that when she realised she was losing her baby, she cried out: “Kill me now.” 

Maria, though, was unaware of all of this. Like most of the people left in Mariupol, she was low on food and water. She was just trying to survive.

Just a day after the hospital bombing, her flat was hit. She had already moved out –she was by now living in a narrow corridor with her neighbours.

Maria Kutnyakova: And I live in there, my neighbours corridor. The corridor was like two metres and one and a half metres. And we was lying on a floor. And you know like, all body was like hurt, and we not see like anything… Six days we sit here in the corridor, we heard the noise of the planes, of the bombs, but we didn’t realise the destruction of the city.

Basia Cummings, narrating: She was exhausted.

Maria Kutnyakova: After four days they bombed, in the day and in the night and you know, you want to sleep. And one night I was so tired so I said to my mum, could you please stop counting? I want sleep, I really didn’t care about planes, about artillery I so tired that, you know, the walls was like boof boof boof 

And I was like, I don’t care. I want sleep. I very tired, you know, we cannot do anything but sitting in the corridor. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Maria, her sister and mother had no idea what was going on beyond their corridor. 

At this point, they believed the Ukrainian army would come and rescue them. 

Maria Kutnyakova: And so we have no news and, but we everyday believes that just few days and our army save us, like, like Russians can not occupy Mariupol because we are like a lot of army. And we believe that everything been fine.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Finally, it dawned on her. No one was coming.

Maria Kutnyakova: But then we haven’t food, haven’t water, everything was bombed. And, uh, we really realised that, uh, nobody coming to save us really, we should go somewhere where there’s a lot of people and, you know, um, uh, when the electricity go away from the city, I turned on my phone.

Every day, like one, one time, uh, and trying to get like mobile connection, something like those, and the day before March 15, I just, uh, turn on my phone and I have a mobile connection. And I was like, Ooh. And I call my dad.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Maria’s parents are divorced. Her dad now lives in Kyiv. 

Maria Kutnyakova: And I was like Dad, what’s the news?

And he was like evacuation buses now in Gdansk and in like a few days they come to Mariupol and one of the places where they came in, yes, it’s the drama theatre. You should go to the drama theatre. I live near the drama theatre. I leave for like 30 minutes before drama it near the drama seat. And he said, like, go to the drama theatre.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Her dad had told her that if there were going to be evacuation buses anywhere, they would be at the theatre in Mariupol.

And so on the evening of 15 March, Maria hatched a plan. She decided to try and make her way there, to catch a bus out of the city to try and make it to safety further in the West of Ukraine or in Poland. 

For her family and neighbours, who had been tucked up in that tiny corridor in north-east Mariupol, it was their first time venturing out in more than a week.

They chose a moment in the morning when, for an hour, the city fell quiet. 

Maria Kutnyakova: Sometimes in the morning, sometimes, we have like one quiet hour, like…they have a rest, the artillery have a rest. 

And we have plan, how we can get there and the plan was very stupid.

Basia Cummings, narrating: By this point, the theatre had become a refuge for hundreds of civilians across the city.

The Azov Battalion had posted a video on YouTube on 10 March showing it was packed with women and children sheltering from the shelling above.

Maria’s plan was to keep to the backstreets, making short dashes through the open, to duck into houses if they thought they were in danger.

But, when they left their building, they got a shock. 

Maria Kutnyakova: Everything is destroyed. We hadn’t seen the destruction of the city. I didn’t recognise my native yard and, oh my god, our street was like destroyed.

Basia Cummings, narrating: They came face-to-face with Russian tanks. 

Maria Kutnyakova: So we go to the street. We was shocked, but it was not, not the end of the story for you. We really saw Russian tanks… and we was like “Russian tanks in the city!”. Oh my God. And we forgot our plan.

Basia Cummings, narrating: When they moved – Maria says – so did the tanks. And then, suddenly, they just started firing at Maria and her family.

Maria Kutnyakova: Oh my god, and we started to run in. Running like crazy. You know, I have a cat, and a like, cat house. And my cat was screeching. And we are running, running, running and then these tanks…

Basia Cummings, narrating: The city they knew had vanished.

There were no streets left to follow. Rubble and shrapnel blocked their path.

But finally, they made it to the theatre. 

Maria Kutnyakova: It’s like heaven. Why? Because our street was like destroyed, but the centre of the city there was few destructions, and it’s been like a sunny day. And people are there with their dogs. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: And this place, that had stood as a monument to Mariupol’s recovery after the 2014 war, a symbol of the city’s love of culture, and as Maria sees it its romantic heart, where she had seen so many performances, her favourite, a dramatisation of Oscar and the Lady in Pink – this place was now a refuge.

Maria Kutnyakova: When I came to the theatre… I was like Oh my god, what an atmosphere, what amazing buildings, what amazing people. I was like Oh my… I was so happy. And we was very hungry, and we we came to Citra, and they give us this tea. And it was like Oh my god this is the greatest tea in my life. Really the greatest cookies in my life. And the greatest tea, and I was like… really in heaven. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Maria’s family were by no means the only ones to have heard about the theatre. If anything, they were late arrivals…. 

Maria Kutnyakova: So it was a lot of people, they was, uh, sitting or lying on the floor in the halls. So in a corridors, uh, in a concert hall, um, in some office rooms, in some theatre rooms and I find a place just on the third floor and everyone said that is a very bad place because it’s not so safe… but we were like “we don’t care, we are in the theatre, immigration buses are somewhere near us, we are nearly in our crazy minds, we seem that we came to theatre, during tea and then immigration buses came to Mariupol, we sit down, and go to freedom. It was our plan. And very foolish, very stupid plan.

Basia Cummings, narrating: We’ve spoken to others who were at the theatre that day. One person, who had been there for more than a week, says during her stay she never saw any evacuation buses.

Maria and her family found some space on the third floor, had tea and biscuits, and Maria went to find her uncle who lived nearby.

While she knew she might not be able to persuade him to leave Mariupol with them, she knew she might not see him again for a long time.

Maria Kutnyakova: He’s 71. He lives near the theatre. And I said, my mom, “I go to uncle and you be somewhere please”. And then I go to my uncle. On that day he was fine. And I started to return to the theatre, and I heard the noise of the plane.

Basia Cummings, narrating: It was after she left her uncle, to return to the theatre, that she heard a sound.

Maria Kutnyakova: And then the time on the street, and then I heard like explosion and, but somewhere in another place. I go to the theatre, and froze that I saw was dust in the sky. And I was like “What’s going on?”.

Basia Cummings, narrating: As she rounded the corner she saw a big hole where the theatre roof was.

Maria Kutnyakova: What’s the roof of the theatre doing on the road?

Basia Cummings, narrating: Walls were destroyed.

Maria Kutnyakova: Two walls was destroyed.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Only one part of the theatre remained fully standing.

Maria Kutnyakova: I go away like 15 minutes ago, everything was fine. And I was like, what with the theatre? And then I heard that I saw like people lying on the square, I saw like parts of the wall on the square, and this trees was like destroyed. And I heard people screaming the names… Like Mascha, Sasha, Dasha, Mama! And on that time, I really understand what’s happening, I understand that my family is in the theatre, and I ran to the building, and I also called my Mum and my sister. They have the same name, Galena. So my sister is Galena, my mum is Galena. So I called Gala! Gala. I saw that in the first hole, a lot of people, but I really don’t care about anyone. I was have just a plan: where is my Mum? Where is my sister? And I understand that they are on the third floor and I should get there. And so I ran to the, to the building and in the open door, I saw that the concert hall was very destroyed so then we have two stairs to get to the second and the third floor. And one of the stairs was destroyed, and one of the stairs was okay. So I ran to the third floor, and it was empty. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: Hundreds of people were crammed into the theatre’s corridors. Hundreds more in the basement, and in the auditorium. And outside, at both the front and the back of the theatre. The word ‘children’ – DIETI – was written in huge letters in Russian on the ground.

So big that the white letters were visible in satellite images.

But despite this, Russia bombed it anyway. 

Maria was left screaming in a dust cloud.

***

Basia Cummings, narrating: Mariupol’s biggest tormentor is arguably a man called Mikhail Mizintsev. (Meez-int-syev)

He’s a colonel general in the Russian army. He has small pale blue eyes, a sharp buzz cut and hair that’s almost white.

Before the invasion the 59 year old wasn’t a well known figure outside Russia. 

He is head of the Russian National Centre for Defence Management, which directs Russia’s military operations. He reportedly helped coordinate the destruction of Aleppo, in Syria, in 2015.

But now, he’s now better known by Ukrainians as the Butcher of Mariupol. 

According to the Ukrainian military, it was Milkhail Mizintsev who ordered the strikes on the maternity hospital and the theatre. 

It’s unconfirmed, but he was added to the British sanctions list for, quote, “planning and executing the siege and bombardment of Mariupol”.

[Speaking in Russian]

Basia Cummings, narrating: This is a clip allegedly intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence a few weeks ago. They claim it’s Mikhail Mizinstev speaking. 

The person in the recording calls for an officer to have his ears cut off for wearing the wrong uniform. “Look at that scum standing there,” the voice says.

Throughout the attack on Ukraine, Mikhail Mizintsev has regularly parroted Putin’s own misinformation about the conflict. 

Nadia Volkova: And now we are about bringing to responsibility, to accountability, those responsible for potential war crimes. 

Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s investigators like Nadia Volkova who are hoping to find the evidence to hold a man like Milkhail Mizintsev accountable. 

Nadia is the director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, a collection of lawyers and legal analysts in Ukraine.

Nadia Volkova: We’ve been trying to compare it to the work of a doctor, who operates, especially maybe like, in the field hospitals, for example. It doesn’t matter that the bombs are flying over your head or missiles. You still do your job because you have to, and that’s the approach that we’ve adopted.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Since the invasion her organisation has been in a coalition of NGOs documenting Russian war crimes. It’s called the 5AM coalition. 5am – because that’s when the war began.

And they’re not working alone. Beyond their group, there is a dizzying array of human rights organisations, journalists and online sleuths working to gather evidence – in the hope that the perpetrators can one day face trial.

We talked to a man called Artem Starosiek who’d retooled his risk assessment firm to help the Ukrainian cyber police. He told us his firm had identified hundreds of Russian soldiers who were reportedly in Bucha, near Kyiv.

Artem Starosiek: There are a lot more actors who are trying to document… Even the people or the organisations that had never done this before… All of a sudden they were doing it as well.

Basia Cummings, narrating: The problem is that the Ukrainian legal system isn’t cut out for this. Few are. 

Artem Starosiek: For the moment, the way things are going now, [I’m] not very optimistic tell you the truth. It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but there’s so much been said about the importance of justice and accountability – and different stakeholders and actors have been, you know, swearing their lives on making sure that justice takes place and is delivered and stuff.

But what we see – I mean this is something that politicians declare the most part – [is] they are mostly political statements because what we see on the ground and what’s happening… actually there’s very little capacity on every level to actually ensure that justice and accountability really happen because the domestic system has been completely annihilated with this new phase of invasion.

Everything that you touch within the legal system of Ukraine, you can say that it has no capacity. So the investigators and prosecutors don’t have enough knowledge and expertise to investigate these crimes and they haven’t built it over the eight years of armed conflict, unfortunately. There is no legal framework or legislative framework to prosecute these types of crimes.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Nadia Volkova, though, is clear eyed that we need to see convictions. If not in Ukraine, then internationally – through the international criminal court, or a tribunal. 

Artem Starosiek: It needs to be the real justice in order for the world to learn also the truth, but primarily to draw, to learn the lessons. Because I think we’ve got to the point where too many get away with impunity and the more we allow for this to happen, the more dangerous a place the world is going to become.

[Oleksi Budnikov speaking in Russian]

Basia Cummings, narrating: It is the immediate aftermath of the theatre bombing, and this footage is taken from inside the building. 

It shows a doorway blocked by rubble. People with ash all over their faces stream out.

Oleksi Budnikov, filming, was just inside the front door of the theatre when the bomb hit. 

First, he ran up the stairs to get some air before realising the whole roof had collapsed bringing down the upper floors with it.

Maria at this point, who cannot find her family, is desperate. 

Maria Kutnyakova: And I really, I was shocked cause you know, I really think that they are dead.

Basia Cummings, narrating: She is running around frantically, calling for her mum, calling for her sister and getting no response.

She’s fearing the worst. 

Maria Kutnyakova: Everything what I’m doing, it’s really nothing, like I cannot help them. I’m just, I have hysteria and I’m screaming and running across the theatre.

Basia Cummings, narrating: She decides to try to reach the third floor, where she left them. 

Maria Kutnyakova: I really don’t understand where they are in what part of the building really? And I’m started to, to call my second name, not, not Galena cause you know the names, they could be the same. So I started to call my second name, like Kutnyakova! Kutnyakova! and someone started to recall me.

Like Marsha! Me Marsha. And they said, and I was like, Christ, and I really don’t understand where the noise and, uh, I w I expected there’s a noise should be somewhere up, you know, in the building. But the noise was like on the ground. And then I saw the door on the wall of the building. It was opened and to, I came to this door and it was stairs down. Somewhere down and on the stairs was my sister. She was very dusty…

Basia Cummings, narrating: Her sister is in a state of shock, her mum seems… dazed, almost calm, asking her simply, “how are you?” like they’re just catching up.

They all head outside the building.

Maria Kutnyakova: When we get to the street, Russian artillery started bombed the square and the building of the theatre. So we understand that in the streets, it’s not safe. But we cannot go to the shelter, because the building is on fire. So we was like, and, um, people started to run, uh, in different ways. Like, and we also started running but we really understand where we were running to. But then someone said we should go to the philharmonic, and the philharmonic is like ten minutes from the theatre.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Of the three people we spoke to who had been at the theatre attack, only Maria mentioned artillery fire. The other two confirmed that people sprinted off in all directions.

Maria and her family headed to the concert hall which was nearby. And that night, Maria and her family endured another night of bombing.

The next day, they decided to do what generations of their family had not done: they left Mariupol.

Maria Kutnyakova: And we like, like, we should go away. Cause, uh, in Mariupol we’ll die. We go by walk to a little village near Mariupol, this village occupied by Russians, but they had not bombed it. No. And we, it’s Melekyne and we go, it was like snowing…

Basia Cummings, narrating: They heard rumours of mines being planted on the main roads outside of the city.

Maria Kutnyakova: When we get away from Mariupol, we think we can get to Ukrainian territory, but then we been four days in Molechina, four days in another village Yalta.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Two days here, two days there. They kept moving.

Maria Kutnyakova: So I was on the way, almost two weeks. And, uh, you know, before war, we have a train, the longest train in Ukraine, from Mariupol to Lviv. It was 28 hours and I hate it. I was like, I hate this train. I could die in the street. But now when I was two weeks on the road from Mariupol to Lviv, I was like, what an amazing train.

Basia Cummings, narrating: Finally, Maria made it to the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, to safety, with her mum, her sister and her cat – MWISHKA. That means mouse.

But hundreds of others in the theatre that day didn’t escape. It’s thought that up to three hundred people died.

Maria Kutnyakova: I’m really like, Ukraine not do anything for started this war. We just exist. I really didn’t believe that in 21 century, someone could do something like Hitler, I understand that they are really crazy, and ever since they hope that we can stop it because it’s not only Ukrainian problem, it’s a Georgian problem.

It’s like a pre-Baltika problem. It’s like a Moldova problem. You know, I am understand that pooching one to rebuild USSR. This is who was really horrible. Uh, and I hope that he cannot do it. I believe in my country. I believe in my President. I want to vote for the Volodymyr Zelensky this is my president, I believe in him.

Just go away from my country

***

Basia Cummings, narrating: Maria’s uncle – the one she went to visit on the day of the theatre bomb – he’s missing. She has no idea if he ever made it out. 

Around a hundred thousand civilians are still thought to remain inside the city. 

Until the Russians are defeated, or retreat, the true scale of the horror unleashed on Mariupol will remain unknown.

But of course Maria has heard the news from Bucha – near Kyiv, where civilians were tied up and executed, where girls as young as 15 were reportedly raped by soldiers. 

She fears the worst.

Most weeks in this podcast, we try to build to some kind of conclusion. To say something about our reporting, and what we’ve learned. 

This week, where we end up is, I think, really simple. 

The assault on Mariupol will come to define the Russian invasion. 

The question isn’t how we define these horrors, it’s who stands to be tried for them.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Slow Newscast. It was written and reported by Xavier Greenwood and Matt Russell. It was produced by Matt Russell, the editor was Jasper Corbett, and sound design by Karla Patella.

How we got here

Mariupol has, largely, been cut off from the world. It’s had limited mobile connectivity, limited internet, and around a hundred thousand people are still thought to be trapped there. But thanks to open source information – gleaned through social media and satellite imagery – and the testimonies of those who were caught up in the first blows, we can begin to piece together what life in Mariupol has been like. And, more importantly, we can start holding those responsible to account.

By focusing on two of the most notorious atrocities we know of in Mariupol, we could start to build a case. What exactly happened at the hospital on 9 March? And at the theatre a week later? Eye-witness testimony, videos spread on Telegram, and the demonstrably false lies told by Russian officials show beyond any doubt that Russians carried out war crimes in Mariupol. The only question really is, will they be held to account? Matt Russell, Producer


Further reading


Past reporting

Russia’s war

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The siege of Mariupol

The siege of Mariupol

Images of a city fighting for survival

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