The apparent Russian attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol has provoked mass international outrage and media coverage since it occurred a week ago.
According to most of the mass media, and its unspecified Ukrainian sources, Russian forces deliberately targeted and attacked a maternity hospital. It was reported that three people were killed and some 17 injured, including children.
Ukraine’s newly iconic President Zelensky called it a “genocide”. Boris Johnson called it “depraved”: meanwhile pretty much every Western official called it a war crime or something similarly grave.
Which, if it *is* what happened, would be a valid description of a targeted attack on a maternity hospital.
But is this what really happened?
A longer, more detailed article on a number of alleged Russian ‘war crimes’ in Ukraine – and on the nature of the highly contestable propaganda operations and information warfare currently in play – will be published here later this week.
But, for now, let’s focus solely on the maternity hospital ‘atrocity’ – which has been the most talked about and publicised such incident in the conflict so far.
For starters, the narrative power of this story is obvious: ‘Russia is Attacking Babies and Pregnant Women!’ Russia is carrying out war crimes. This was an inhumane attack by heartless monsters. What kind of military targets babies and women?
But let’s put on our critical-faculty glasses for a moment. Because there are problems with this story and the way it has been widely covered: including a problem with one new aspect to the story that emerged just yesterday (which we’ll come to shortly).
A week ago, Mariupol city council posted a video of the devastated hospital in the city and accused Russian forces of dropping several bombs on it from the air. The footage of the badly damaged building was widely circulated, along with highly dramatic headlines to frame the narrative.
But it’s worth noting that there is only video and images of the aftermath of the bombed location – none of the attack actually happening.
Russia doesn’t appear, in any case, to deny the attack.
Russian sources, however, claimed that the hospital hasn’t been in use for some time and had no doctors or patients in it: and had in fact been turned into a tactical position by Azov fighters, from which they were carrying out attacks. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said it had alerted the UN to this being the case several days prior to the location being hit.
So, was this building an *active* maternity hospital… or was it an Azov militia position?
Now, either claim could be true. But the key question is: to whose benefit was it to have a story about a maternity hospital and a Russian atrocity spread across the world?
We’ll circle back to that in a moment.
But, for anyone who doesn’t know, Mariupol has been under siege by the Russian forces: and is also specifically an Azov stronghold. For all the talk of Russian destruction – or even war crimes – in Mariupol, there have also been counter claims (though largely ignored in most Western media) of Azov having also been killing civilians, as well as preventing civilians from being able to leave.
Now I’m not going to comment on the authenticity or reliability of these claims – on either side. Because I, like most of us, have no clear way of ascertaining what the truth is.
But the first point here is that, despite the unclear reliability of the Ukrainian sources for the maternity hospital story, almost all of the mass media – and almost all major Western officials – ran with the ‘war crime’ version of events: with all of its accompanying emotionality.
And images of the pregnant woman being escorted away from the scene adorned newspaper frontpages and website homepages worldwide.
Credit where credit is due, however: The Guardian, despite still running with the same highly emotive narrative as everyone else, did nevertheless – in its March 9th report on the incident – include this caveat: ‘The Guardian was unable to fully verify the Ukrainian officials’ accounts, but video published by the Associated Press showed multiple injured people at the site of the hospital attack…’
In other words, The Guardian – while still pushing the narrative at the emotional, sensational level – was nonetheless willing to say what basically amounted to ‘we can’t verify what happened: but here’s the videos and pictures of it’.
You can read between the lines in some of the other media coverage of the event too. The BBC, for example, also reported the maternity hospital attack more or less as fact, but then included the odd line that it ‘has verified the location of the videos‘.
I say odd because it’s more about what’s *not* being said: if you read between the lines, it is basically saying it has ‘verified the location of the videos’ but essentially implying that it has not verified anything else. I mean it’s a strange thing to include in the report: that you’ve ‘verified the location’.
To be fair to the BBC, at least they’re willing to imply – albeit as discretely as possible – that they’re not sure about the reliability of the overall story. It’s far better than what, for example, CNN has been doing.
But the story gets stranger.
And in fact, in the last day it has taken another turn: a very sad one: but nevertheless one that raises more questions.
A week on from the maternity hospital attack, it has now also been reported that the pregnant woman (or one of them) photographed escaping from the building has subsequently died, having also lost her baby. To be clear, this is the woman who was pictured being carried on a stretcher – not the walking woman in the polka dots.
Now, I want to be careful here. I don’t want this to come across as insensitive. Obviously, it’s a very tragic story. But there’s something I’m struggling with, as far as the reporting of this matter is concerned.
And that is the fact that the woman is not being identified. Sky News simply says: ‘A pregnant woman who was pictured being evacuated from a bombed maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has died along with her baby… Doctors did not have time to get her name before her husband and father came to take away her body…’
Is that normal? For the woman not to be identified? Why don’t they know her name?
Are they saying that, in the several days since the attack, they weren’t able to establish her identity? Was she unable to communicate? If she was a patient in an active maternity hospital, wouldn’t there have been a record of her identity there – or at least wouldn’t staff there have been able to provide her name?
And if, as the report says, her father and husband came to collect her – wouldn’t *they* know her name? And, for that matter, how could the facility she was being treated at have *gotten in contact* with her husband and father unless they knew her identity?
This part of the story doesn’t make sense.
You might speculate that perhaps the family had requested the woman’s identity be kept private: but that’s not what the reports are saying. The above-cited report specifically says ‘Doctors did not have time to get her name before her husband and father came to take away her body…‘
It has nothing to do with any requested anonymity: it’s because ‘doctors did not have time to get her name’. Despite the fact that the maternity hospital attack was several days ago.
And I’ve checked nine or ten different news sources for this story now and they’re all basically saying the exact same things, most of them worded almost identically: the source for all of the media reports on the woman’s death appears to be the Associated Press (which, in turn, appears to be using the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry as its source).
I’ve also pasted the bulk of the Daily Mail‘s article on this subject too here, just to show the story is being reported the same everywhere. I warn in advance how atrociously bad the writing is in this article: and yes, all the grammatical errors are actually as they appear in the original text.
Source: ‘An injured pregnant woman and her unborn baby – whose image being stretchered from her Putin-bombed maternity ward became one of the war’s most shocking images – have both died. Pictures of the unnamed mother-to-be in agony as she was carried from the Mariupol hospital appalled the watching world. She had come under attack in the very place she had thought safe to bring new life into the world…’
It continues: ‘In video and photos shot last Wednesday after the attack, the woman was seen stroking her bloodied lower abdomen as rescuers rushed her through the rubble in the besieged city of Mariupol. It was among the most brutal moments so far in Russia’s 19-day war on Ukraine. The woman was rushed to another hospital, closer to the frontline, where doctors worked to keep her alive. But realising she was losing her baby, medics said that she cried out to them: ‘Kill me now’…’
But here’s the curious bit again: ‘In the chaos after Wednesday’s air strike, medics did not have time to get the woman’s name before her husband and father came to take away her body. Someone came to retrieve her, they said – so she did not end up in the mass graves being dug for many of Mariupol’s growing number of dead…’
Firstly, the above-quoted Daily Mail article in particular reads like it was written by someone whose first language isn’t English. Which makes me suspect it might’ve been written by someone in Ukraine: or that the newspaper (or the AP, in the first instance) simply copy-and-pasted a ‘press release’ type text from a Ukrainian source.
It’s also a bit worse than the first example, because it casually says ‘someone came to retrieve her’.
But secondly, again, why does no one know this poor woman’s name?
And why are all the press reports – copied from what seems to be the same common source text – so badly written, so vague in their details, and so unconvincing?
To be clear, I am not saying the woman in question hasn’t died. What I’m pointing out is how strangely and how poorly her apparent death is being reported on. It’s as if they’re only interested in the emotional picture painted by the story and not in the details that would give the woman (and they literally refer to her as ‘the woman’ in several of the articles) any kind of identity or individuality.
Curiously, in the immediate aftermath of the attack and all of the outraged media coverage, the Russians claimed the woman in the famous photo (the woman in the polka dots) was actually a model: and, stranger yet, that both pregnant women pictured at the scene (including the woman on the stretcher) were in fact this same person.
As reported here, for example: ‘The Russian embassy claimed that a ‘pregnant’ woman seen in the photos captured at the now-destroyed maternity house was a beauty blogger by the name of Marianna Podgurskaya… “She actually played the roles of both pregnant women on the photos. And first photos were actually taken by famous propagandist photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, rather than rescuers and witnesses as one would expect,” it said…’
Apparently, the original tweets that the Russian embassy posted to make these claims were deleted by the platform. There’s a whole back-and-forth that went on between pro and anti Russian accounts on social media over this matter: I won’t chronicle all of that here, but this article sums up the claims and counter claims.
To be clear here, the woman named by the Russian embassy (the blogger) and the woman who has now reportedly died are two different women – at least according to most accounts of the matter. It’s only the Russian embassy that claims it was one woman. In case anyone is confused, the woman in the polka dots is the beauty blogger, while the woman pictured being carried on the stretcher is the unnamed woman who has now apparently passed away.
It should be said, at any rate, that the woman in question being a model or beauty blogger does not in itself mean anything: as she still could’ve been a patient at the maternity building (and photos seem to prove she was pregnant prior to the events in Mariupol).
What I’m more interested in is the claim that the same person was both women in the photos from the aftermath of the attack. Because, although I dismissed this idea a week ago, now that we’ve read the strange details about the other pregnant woman’s apparent death (i.e: the fact that she remains unnamed), I’m forced to wonder if maybe this claim was true.
I probably think it’s *not* true that it’s the same woman: I’ve looked closely at both photos and I don’t think they’re the same person. But it’s really difficult to tell.
That doesn’t negate, however, the possibility that the first woman – the beauty blogger – might’ve been part of a carefully staged propaganda photo, as the Russian embassy suggested. This woman, by the way, did survive: and apparently gave birth to her child a few days ago (according to multiple media reports).
But the story of the second woman, who we are now told has died, is really troubling me. The fact that no one wants to *name* her is a real problem in this overall narrative.
Because, again, if – as the Ukrainian sources claim – the building that was attacked was an *active* maternity hospital with patients present, why would there not be a record of who this patient was?
Besides that, the woman’s photograph has subsequently been seen all over the world: can’t she be identified by *anyone*? Or is her identity being kept secret on purpose: if so, why?
What this also neatly demonstrates is the lack of fact-checking or independent verification by mainstream media outlets, who, in this case, have simply copy-and-pasted the text of the story from the AP (and before that from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry) and presented it as fact: despite the problematic elements in the narrative.
And this flawed dynamic has in fact been evident in much of the major media reporting on the Ukraine conflict since it started: up to and including the attack on the maternity hospital.
I guess, finally, then we can come back to the initial question: who would benefit from this whole story of the Russians attacking a maternity hospital?
Well, a better question is why would Russia deliberately attack a maternity hospital? It makes no sense: not only it is strategically worthless, but it is also guaranteed to provoke mass outrage and paint Russia as an inhumane war criminal – which is exactly what has happened in the media.
If we’re being logical, Russia has NO motive for carrying out such an attack on active maternity hospital. It would be a really stupid thing to do: especially when the world’s eyes are watching for those kinds of incidents and ‘war crimes’ accusations were already being spoken about even before this incident in Mariupol.
The opposing fighters, however, have every motive for setting up a situation that would make it *look like* Russia had targeted a maternity hospital: because this is a propaganda war, and the Western media was always going to be on-hand to run with the story and to make the most of it.
And of course this is a dynamic/tactic we’ve seen plenty of before: for example, in Syria and in Libya, where the militias would often stage or fake a ‘war crime’ in order for the Western media to blame it on the government/military that they were fighting to overthrow.
We also know, according to most press coverage, that Russian forces have typically been issuing advanced warning to civilians in any areas or locations that are soon to be attacked: allowing civilians to leave for safer locations. Meaning that it’s unlikely – or at least out-of-keeping with their actions elsewhere – that they wouldn’t have done the same here: meaning that, even if there were patients or medical staff in that building, they would’ve had advanced warning to evacuate.
It would therefore be unlikely that they would’ve remained: especially if we’re talking about pregnant women and babies.
While the Russians claim the building had no pregnant women, babies or medical staff in it anyway, the point should be made that the only reason for there to have been any pregnant women, babies or medical staff in the building when the attack happened is if Ukrainian fighters (in this case, Azov fighters) were forcing them to stay.
Either way, most of the major media outlets haven’t seemed interested in asking any questions along these lines: choosing instead to hook-line-and-sinker take and run with the story of the ‘barbaric’ Russian attack on babies and mothers. And this, almost certainly, is the story that’s going to stick in the popular mindset and most people’s perception of this conflict.
I am not drawing any definitive conclusion, one way or the other, as to what happened: only that the prevailing narrative of this event doesn’t make a lot of sense – and that the mass media has been transparently all too eager to run with the version of the story provided by the Ukrainian sources.
I also really want to know why the now-deceased woman, whose image has been shared all over the world in the last several days, is not being named.