- Russian bombing of Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol took place on March 16.
- It stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date.
- A report has found evidence that the attack was in fact far deadlier than estimated.
She stood in just her bathrobe in the freezing basement of the Mariupol theater, coated in white plaster dust shaken loose by the explosion. Her husband tugged at her to leave and begged her to cover her eyes.
But she couldn’t help it — Oksana Syomina looked. And to this day, she wishes she hadn’t. Bodies were strewn everywhere, including those of children. By the main exit, a little girl lay still on the floor.
Syomina had to step on the dead to escape the building that had served as the Ukrainian city’s main bomb shelter for more than a week. The wounded screamed, as did those trying to find loved ones. Syomina, her husband, and about 30 others ran blindly toward the sea and up the shore for almost five miles (eight kilometers) without stopping, the theater in ruins behind them.
“All the people are still under the rubble because the rubble is still there — no one dug them up,” Syomina said, weeping at the memory. “This is one big mass grave.”
Amid all the horrors that have unfolded in the war on Ukraine, the Russian bombing of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 stands out as the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date. An Associated Press investigation has found evidence that the attack was in fact far deadlier than estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building. That's almost double the death toll cited so far, and many survivors put the number even higher.
The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater on that day from the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers, and people intimately familiar with its new life as a bomb shelter. The AP also drew on two sets of floor plans of the theater, photos, and video taken inside before, during, and after that day, and feedback from experts who reviewed the methodology.
With communications severed, people coming and going constantly, and memories blurred by trauma, an exact toll is impossible to determine. The government estimated early on that about 300 people died and has since opened a war crimes investigation, according to a document obtained by the AP.
AP journalists arrived at a much higher number through the reconstruction of a 3D model of the building's floorplan reviewed repeatedly by direct witnesses, most from within the theater, who described in detail where people were sheltering.
All the witnesses said at least 100 people were at a field kitchen just outside, and none survived. They also said the rooms and hallways inside the building were packed, with about one person for every 3 square meters of free space.
Many survivors estimated around 1,000 people were inside at the time of the airstrike, but the most anyone saw escape, including rescuers, was around 200. The survivors primarily left through the main exit or one side entrance; the other side and the back were crushed.
The AP investigation also refutes Russian claims that the theater was demolished by Ukrainian forces or served as a Ukrainian military base. None of the witnesses saw Ukrainian soldiers operating inside the building. And not one person doubted that the theater was destroyed in a Russian air attack aimed with precision at a civilian target everyone knew was the city’s largest bomb shelter, with children in it.
James Gow, a professor of international security at King’s College London, said documenting what happened at the theater is critical to establishing a pattern of crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
“This strong witness testimony will be important in establishing that (Russian illegal) conduct was widespread or systematic,” said Gow, who also served as an expert witness at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Mariupol has taken on outsize importance as a symbol of the devastation inflicted by Russian forces and of the resistance from Ukraine. The city's fate is now hanging in the balance, and officials say around 20,000 civilians died during the Russian siege. With Mariupol cut off from access, many fear the bombing of the theater presages more war crimes that have yet to be discovered.