Over six months after the catastrophic explosion that destroyed the Kakhovka Dam in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, an AP investigation found that Russian occupation authorities vastly and deliberately undercounted the dead. The monthslong AP inquiry was the closest yet to revealing the real number of deaths Russia tried to hide from the dam’s destruction in the 22-month war, which Ukrainians believe was carried out to hamper the planned Ukrainian counteroffensive across the Dnipro River. Russia has denied it was responsible.
AP Kyiv correspondent Samya Kullab and news assistant Illia Novikov were working on a different story about how residents of the affected town of Oleshky were returning slowly to Ukraine, taking a circuitous way out of Russia. During their reporting, they were asking people about how many dead people they had seen when a source, who said he had been an informant for the Ukrainian armed forces, said he knew of a mass grave. That sent Kullab and Novikov in a fresh direction, and the story developed from there.
Because of the ongoing war, it was extremely difficult to access people; nine out of 10 people contacted for the story did not want to speak. They were too fearful. Kullab and Novikov, however, managed to access a private chat group through one contact, and from there they managed to reach out to people.
Each person who agreed to speak provided a piece of the puzzle. For example, a person they identified as having been buried in the mass grave was first mentioned to AP by a nurse. Novikov had put together a list of the missing from the chat group, and after cross-referencing it, they learned that this person’s daughter was looking for him.
Eventually, the AP spoke to health workers, volunteers, residents and recent escapees who provided new accounts and invaluable details confirming Russian authorities had vastly and deliberately undercounted the dead. Instead of the 59 people Russian authorities said drowned in the territory they control, AP found that the real number is at least in the hundreds in just one town.
Throughout the process, the two worked with Paris-based Lori Hinnant and others from the international investigative team, including Peter Hamlin who worked on the illustrations to compensate for lack of access and Dario Lopez who worked on the presentation.
The story was No. 7 in page views the day after it ran. It was widely cited in other publications including Washington Post, Radio Free Europe, The Independent and others. The independent Russian news site Meduza listed it as among the 10 most important investigative stories of the war in 2023.
For their dogged pursuit of the facts that had been obscured after the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and allowing victims and their survivors to be heard, Kullab and Novikov earn Best of the Week — First Winner.