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Definitely not ‘staged’ False allegations about the maternity hospital airstrike in Mariupol, debunked

Source: Meduza
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On March 9, the Ukrainian authorities reported that Russian forces had bombed the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol. Later, Kyiv stated that the airstrike killed three people (including a child) and injured 17 others. Photos of the aftermath captured by Evgeniy Maloletka — a Ukrainian photographer working in the besieged city — shocked audiences around the world when they appeared in the international press. The next day, however, an anonymous Telegram channel published claims that the images were “staged,” alleging that the maternity hospital was actually “controlled by nationalists” from the far-right Azov Battalion. Pro-Kremlin media outlets then proceeded to spread these allegations far and wide. Ilya Ber — the publisher and editor-in-chief of Provereno Media, which specializes in debunking fake news — analyzes these attempts to cast doubt on what happened in Mariupol. 

Please note. The following is a translation of an explainer jointly published by Meduza and Provereno Media.

What pro-Kremlin media is saying

  • Vesti.ru published a clip from a broadcast by state-owned news channel Russia-24, under the headline “Ukrainian model suspected of filming fake about maternity hospital in Mariupol.” “Social media users suspected Ukrainian beauty blogger Marianna Podgurskaya of taking part in staged photos against the background of an allegedly destroyed maternity hospital in Mariupol,” the article says. 
  • Government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an article titled, “Another Western fake: Woman filmed at Mariupol maternity hospital turned out to be a fashion model in makeup.” 
  • The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda decried the story as “another fake from Ukrainian propaganda,” claiming that the women photographed in the aftermath of the explosion were “all the same girl in different clothing” and that “all the pictures were taken by the same photographer.” 
  • Later, Russian government agencies made similar claims about what had happened. The Russian Defense Ministry’s official spokesperson, Igor Konashenkov, stated that the “alleged ‘airstrike’ [on the hospital] was an entirely orchestrated provocation” aimed at maintaining the “anti-Russian frenzy among Western audiences.” 
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What the Ukrainian authorities are saying 

On the afternoon of March 9, 2022, the Mariupol City Council reported that Russian aircraft had “purposefully bombed a children’s hospital in Mariupol.” This message was accompanied by several videos showing damaged buildings and destroyed cars (one of which was still on fire). The videos also show people at the scene, although mostly from a distance. In one video, a person off-camera says that the viewers are looking at “Mariupol’s Hospital No. 3, a maternity hospital.”

In another video, the person filming can be heard saying “artillery shelling” and “maternity hospital.” This footage shows a person being carried out on a stretcher, as well as two men leading a pregnant woman toward the camera. In the background, around two dozen people can be seen evacuating a three-story building. 

Shortly after, the official Telegram channel of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video filmed inside the building (it appears to be taken by the same police officer or rescue worker who shot the second video mentioned above). Radio chatter (about who is doing what and what needs to be done next) can be heard on the recording as the camera pans around destroyed rooms, showing broken glass and crushed plaster, as well as beds, mattresses, and tables. This particular footage shows almost no identifiable medical equipment or injured people. Off-camera, the person filming says “Aircraft fired on a maternity hospital. There’s the Russians for you.”

Later that evening, a series of photos from the maternity hospital in Mariupol were published on Telegram and then in major Western publications. The photos were taken by Evgeniy Maloletka — a well-known Ukrainian photographer — for the Associated Press (one of the biggest and most well-respected news agencies in the world).

Evgeniy Maloletka has spent several days in Mariupol during the Russian siege. Meduza also published his photos from the city. Our editors are confident in the authenticity of these images. 

On the morning of March 10, an anonymous Telegram channel called “Signal” (@ssigny) published an “analysis” of Evgeniy Maloletka’s photos. The channel, which has expressed support for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, currently has more than 493,000 subscribers. After the appearance of this post, reports “refuting Ukrainian fake news” began spreading across pro-Kremlin blogs and Telegram channels. 

Debunking claims shared on Telegram

Claim #1

“Signal uncovered the girl who photographers photographed in the wreckage of the maternity hospital in Mariupol. She turned out to be a model and a popular beauty blogger in Mariupol. Her name is Marianna Podgurskaya. The girl is actually pregnant…”

This part is true. The woman in the photos really is named Marianna Podgurskaya (her married name is Vyshemirskaya) and she does run a popular Instagram page. At the time the photos were taken, she was indeed pregnant. Pro-Kremlin Russian media later deliberately drew attention to Podgurskaya’s occupation (“beauty blogger”), apparently hinting that she’s accustomed to taking part in photoshoots. However, this doesn’t hold up as evidence of falsification: Podgurskaya’s job doesn’t change the fact that it’s not unusual for a heavily pregnant woman (regardless of her profession) to be at a maternity hospital. 

Marianna Podgurskaya walking down a flight of stairs at the maternity hospital after the bombardment. Mariupol, March 9, 2022. 
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Claim #2

“The girl actually is pregnant, but she couldn’t have been ‘laying’ in a maternity hospital long occupied by neo-Nazis from Azov. [...] An interview with one of the maternity hospital’s employees was published on March 8. She said that Azov had kicked out all of the [medical] personnel and patients, and occupied the building. On March 5, it was reported that Azov fighters were firing from the grounds of this very maternity hospital.”

These claims may appear solid, but in fact there’s no evidence to back them up.

Signal links to a report published on the pro-Kremlin website Lenta.ru, which includes the following claim: “Igor said that in the last days of February, people in uniform came to the maternity hospital where his mother works. He doesn’t know if they were combatants from the ZSU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] or the nationalist Azov Battalion (banned in Russia). The soldiers broke all the locks, dispersed the maternity hospital’s staff, and set up firing points in the building in order to, as they explained to the doctors, prepare ‘fortress Mariupol’ for defense.”

We don’t know who Igor is or whether he’s telling the truth. But even if we assume that he is telling the truth, it’s impossible to determine which particular maternity hospital he’s referring to, as there are several in Mariupol. 

Signal’s second “source” is an article published by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, which includes the following quote from the Russian Defense Ministry’s official spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov: “Combatants from the Azov and Aidar nationalist battalions are firing on the units of the People’s militia that entered the city, from positions set up in schools, hospitals, maternity hospitals, and kindergartens.” 

Konashenkov also didn’t name the specific maternity hospital that Ukrainian forces were allegedly using as a firing position. This means that even if you believe Russian claims about the Azov Special Operations Detachment occupying a maternity hospital in Mariupol, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the same one where Marianna Podgurskaya was photographed. 

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Earlier, during an address to the United Nations on March 7 (two days before the bombing discussed in this article), Russia’s Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenzya also alleged that one of Mariupol’s maternity hospitals had been seized. However, he named a specific facility. Citing “local residents,” Nebenzya said that “having kicked out all the staff of Mariupol’s Maternity Hospital No. 1, the Ukrainian Armed Forces set up a firing position there.” The day after the bombing of Maternity Hospital No. 3 (March 10), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — incorrectly citing Nebenzya’s claim — said that “this maternity hospital had long been seized by the Azov Battalion and other radicals.”

However, Maternity Hospital No 1. and Maternity Hospital No. 3 are two different facilities located in different districts of Mariupol. What’s more, based on photos and videos that show neighboring buildings, it can be firmly established that Hospital No.3 was the one that came under attack. 

Finally, even if the story about the Azov Detachment allegedly taking over Maternity Hospital No.1 proves true, this in itself has no bearing on the functioning of the city’s other institutions. There are thousands of people still in Mariupol despite the siege — and pregnant women give birth even during wartime. 

Claim #3 

“The same model appeared in all three scenes.”

Signal’s claim that the same woman appeared in all of the photos was echoed by Komsomolskaya Pravda: “It’s the same girl in different clothes in all of the photographs from the destroyed maternity hospital.” 

Two of the three photographs Signal shared were snapshots of Marianna Podgurskaya taken by Evgeniy Maloletka. But the third photo, which shows an injured, pregnant woman on a stretcher, is clearly of someone else. You can tell just by looking at it. 

You can get an even better view in this video (at 2:17), which wasn’t mentioned in the Telegram channel’s “analysis.” This video was filmed by another AP photojournalist, Mystyslav Chernov. The four-minute clip captures a number of people in the aftermath of the explosion; it also shows the remains of damaged medical equipment, and there’s a few seconds of footage of Marianna Podgurskaya (at 3:10). 

This video also dispels false claims that “footage filmed after the rocket struck near the maternity hospital [doesn’t show] a single victim” (Chernov’s video shows both the scale of the destruction, as well as people injured by the shelling). 

This is all on top of the fact that it’s hard to imagine who, if anyone, could organize such a large-scale and complex “sham” in a besieged city that’s under constant shelling. 

In conclusion

Allegations about the photographs being “staged” or “orchestrated” do not stand up to critical analysis and are patently false. The spread of this disinformation through anonymous Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin media appears to be a deliberate effort to manipulate public opinion.

Photos and videos depicting the aftermath of the shelling in Mariupol on March 9 were taken by professional journalists from one of the oldest and most well-respected news agencies in the world. And independent media outlets do not take part in “information war” — their task is to provide honest and unbiased coverage of events. 

As of this writing, we can’t say who exactly is responsible for shelling Maternity Hospital No. 3 or where the strike came from. However, we expect that one day someone will be brought to justice for this crime. 

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Explainer by Ilya Ber

Translation by Eilish Hart