Hanna Bilobrova, partner of Lithuanian film director Mantas Kvedaravicius who was found dead in Mariupol, Ukraine, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Vilnius, Lithuania April 14, 2022.
Hanna Bilobrova, partner of Lithuanian film director Mantas Kvedaravicius who was found dead in Mariupol, Ukraine, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Vilnius, Lithuania April 14, 2022. Reuters / JANIS LAIZANS

Hanna Bilobrova's journey with her film director fianc? to document suffering in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol turned into a quest to find out how he was killed, to bring his body back to his native Lithuania, and to complete his work.

Mantas Kvedaravicius, 45, was killed in the city nearly a month ago.

He and Bilobrova, a 29-year-old Ukrainian, had gone to Mariupol together last month to shoot a sequel to his 2016 documentary "Mariupolis", which was about the city during the conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government and Russian-backed separatists.

From soon after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the southeastern port city has been under heavy bombardment from Russian forces.

Bilobrova said Kvedaravicius went missing after setting out to find people who would want to try to evacuate the city with them.

Reuters could not independently verify her account of his death, or those provided by two other Ukrainian officials.

The Ukrainian officials and a soldier she said spoke to her about Kvedaravicius referred to the couple as married although in fact they were engaged, Bilobrova said.

Bilobrova said she scoured the city for days asking Russian and Russian-backed separatist soldiers to help her locate him, before one officer approached her and said: "Your husband has perished".

She said that she was brought to his body two days later by a soldier acting on the officer's orders, finding him lying face down on the street.

"He was shot, not where he was found. There was no blood on the ground," she told Reuters in Vilnius, crying. She said he had been shot in the stomach but there was no hole in his clothes to match the wound.

The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said on April 3 that Kvedaravicius had been killed trying to leave the city. Ukrainian human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said on April 9 that Kvedaravicius "was taken prisoner by 'rashists' ('Russian fascists'), who later shot him. The occupiers threw the director's body out into the street".

"His wife, risking her life, took his body out of the blockaded city and brought it to Lithuania. The real cause of the director's death has not been announced earlier for her safety," Denisova wrote on her Telegram channel.

The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about Bilobrova and Denisova's accounts.

Russia, which calls its action a "special operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" Ukraine, has denied targetting civilians during the war.

A spokesperson for the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), a self-declared separatist entity in the Donetsk region where Mariupol is located, did not respond to a request for comment.

Bilobrova said she believes troops fighting on the Russian side shot Kvedaravicius after arresting him on suspicion of being an undercover sniper from Lithuania, a NATO country.

She said she based this on what she was told by a Ukrainian who was detained together with Kvedaravicius. She said he told her that the soldiers had found a bruise on his shoulder which could have been from carrying a backpack but was taken as evidence of him firing a weapon.

Bilobrova, who is from Luhansk region, said it took four days to bring his body to Lithuania through Russia.

She wants to complete the film, having brought back his footage.

She said that when they went to Mariupol on March 19, they brought supplies to help people trapped there, and sought refuge in the basement of a ruined Methodist church, with about 30 others, mostly the elderly and mothers with children from destroyed houses nearby.

Kvedaravicius, an anthropologist by training, filmed people in the shelter who were too scared to try to get out of Mariupol through dangerous territory, Bilobrova said.