(RoyalPatriot.com )- She stood in the chilly Mariupol theater basement, covered in white plaster dust shook loose by the explosion. Her spouse drew her away and urged her to close her eyes.
Oksana Syomina looked. She still regrets it. Children’s bodies were spread throughout. A tiny girl sat on the floor at the main exit.
Syomina had to tread over the dead to exit the city’s biggest bomb shelter for almost a week. Injured people and loved ones wailed. Syomina, her husband, and around 30 others raced blindly for the sea, leaving the theater in rubble behind them.
The Russian bombardment of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 is the single worst documented strike on civilians. An AP investigation discovered evidence that the assault killed more than 600 people inside and outside the building. That’s rough twice the reported death toll, and many survivors put it higher.
It was based on the testimonies of 23 survivors, rescuers, and those acquainted with the theater’s new existence as a bomb shelter. The AP used two sets of theater floor plans, images and video was taken before, during, and after that day, and expert input on the approach.
A precise toll is hard to calculate with little communication, continual movement, and traumatized memories. According to an AP document, the government initially estimated 300 deaths and has subsequently launched a war crimes probe.
The AP got a far more significant figure by reconstructing a 3D model of the building’s layout and asking firsthand witnesses, mainly from within the theater, where people were hiding.
Mariupol has become a symbol of Russian destruction and Ukrainian resistance. Officials estimate that 20,000 people perished during the Russian siege. With Mariupol shut off, many believe the theater bombing signals more war crimes to come.
The magnificent theater with white pillars, a classical frieze, and a characteristic red roof has existed on a plaza in the center of Mariupol for almost 60 years. The Russian Dramatic Theater was renamed in 2015 when the term “Russian” was removed. They ordered all performances in Ukrainian last July.
The Russian siege of Mariupol began in early March. On March 5, the theater’s players, designers, and administrators sought safety. According to Elena Bila, a stage manager for 19 years, there were 60 individuals scattered around in a 600-seat auditorium.
Due to its size, thick walls, and vast basement, the city declared the building a bomb shelter. Bila estimates the first day’s attendance at 600.
Every day, more individuals entered and sat in the corridors. A security committee of 16 men guarded the front doors in turns.
A week before the bombing, the theater’s set designer painted the phrase “CHILDREN” in Cyrillic characters on the sidewalk outside, hoping to deter an aerial strike. The signage was huge enough to be read from satellites in the front and rear doors.
On March 9, a Russian airstrike damaged a nearby maternity facility, forcing two or three pregnant women to seek refuge in the theater. Behind the stage, the ladies and families with young children got the best dressing rooms on the second level. It would be their undoing.
By March 15, 1,200 people were sleeping in offices, hallways, balconies, and the basement. Backstage offices and dressing rooms surrounded the curving halls. Once luxurious theater seats were utilized as kindling for cooking.
But they avoided sleeping on the stage, which had a domed roof directly overhead and felt like a bullseye. Only cats and dogs were kept beneath the dome.
The city had no power, food, or water by this time. The theater became a Red Cross distribution point for food, water, and information about prospective evacuations.
People hurried to the theater to get a head start on potential evacuations. Newcomers checked in at the entryway, where the cloakroom was. Just beyond the register was a booth offering hot tea.
The Kutnyakov family and their neighbors were among those hoping to evacuate on March 16.
The fire next door dispelled whatever doubts they had about leaving their house.
They fled past a Russian tank, a hospital already shelled, and then accidentally toward another Russian tank, whose turret turned and fired. They sheltered under the wreckage of the hospital’s children’s clinic. Then they rushed half a mile (kilometer) down a side street to the theater.
“We were instantly served and poured tea,” Galina Kutnyakova said. “Imagine, we hadn’t eaten or drank in six days. The steaming tea made everyone happy.”
They were informed lunch was at twelve and they could find room.
It was already filled. The first and second floors too. In the third story, they observed a place near huge windows that would shatter into glass blades if the structure was struck.
They grabbed the only open spot. They cleaned everything up and lay up their bedding just before 10:00 a.m.
Maria Kutnyakova, Galina’s 30-year-old daughter, strolled around the complex looking for empty rooms. Then she walked out alone to locate her uncle, who lived nearby. He hadn’t been seen in nine days.
That’s when she heard airplanes approaching the Azovstal steel factory. Continuing her trek, she heard a single jet considerably closer.
Then the blast.
She observed flames billowing from the park’s central theater. The theater stood bare, its crimson roof shattered. The meter-thick walls beside the field kitchen had crumbled.
Her mother and sister were inside.
The bombs were launched around 10 a.m.; an airstrike struck the stage and field kitchen.
Maria Radionova had set up a niche for herself and her two dogs right below the chandelier in the drama theater’s hall. The roof collapsed, the chandelier came down, shattering.
Radionova wasn’t there at the time. She had gone to the theater’s front stairs.
She heard a plane’s whistle. A guy shoved her against a wall and covered her. Bricks and debris flew towards them.
The blast knocked another guy backward over the glass. A lady was bleeding profusely nearby.
Radionova returned to the theater and entered the hall. People screamed and fled, seeking their moms. Radionova’s pets died.
“I had nothing else,” she sobbed. “This was my family… I sobbed for two hours.”
Victoria Dubovytska, 24, had just piled blankets in the projection room with her 2-year-old Anastasia and 6-year-old Artem. They were hurled into the wall by the blast. The blankets tumbled over the child, protecting her from the incoming slabs.
The shock left the room silent for a few seconds.
“Mama!” cried Anastasia.
“I knew she was alive,” Dubovytska said. “It’s a wonder she lived.”
She fled the theater with her son, daughter, and whatever papers she could locate. It was already half-crashed.
Maria Kutnyakova raced into the hall, looking for her mother and sister. In the third story, she found smashed windows and no evidence of her loved ones or their things.
Family screams flooded the air. Initially, she yelled “Mom” but immediately understood that it was futile. So she yelled the family name.
Someone returned the call, “Masha Kutnyakova!”
With everyone yelling, she could barely hear the voice. It sounded like it came from below, but only the dead were there. She believed she had gone mad.
She went to the basement and bomb shelter. At the bottom of the stairs stood her sister with a cat, covered in plaster. She was on the third level and took refuge in the basement.
Their mother was on the ground level, near the doctor’s office, and fled by a side door.
They walked with a group of roughly 50 people to the adjacent Mariupol Philharmonic, which was also a refuge. At dusk, it too was shelled.
The explosion’s shockwave echoed beyond the theater.
Dmitriy Yurin turned 31 on March 16. He walked the 100 meters to the theater for food and drank every morning for a week.
The bomb knocked him down at the parking garage door. Yurin, a fisherman, sprang up and hurried to rescue others who couldn’t walk.
The blood was up to the elbow on his arms.
After a 20-minute break to compose himself and wipe off some blood, he returned. Most of the corpses were buried deep in the flaming foundations. Rescuers rushed to the park to reach anybody.
“Some of them died on the street,” Yurin recalled sadly. “We said goodbye.”
He remembered one young lady, around 25 years old. He stammered as he remembered her.
They disposed of her on a sparse winter flowerbed. Two ladies and a youngster comforted her through tears.
“We’ll live, don’t die,” they said.
But she died.
Yurin shortly departed. He drew on a neoprene suit and covered his feet with plastic bags. He swam for almost a mile “like a dog” in the Azov Sea” before surfacing outside Mariupol. It took days for him to reach safety in western Ukraine.
Yulia Marukhnenko also lived nearby. Marukhnenko looked to the field kitchen first, but everyone was buried. So she ran to the cellars.
She faced situations that no first aid could help- limbs with no bodies, bodies without limbs, bones protruding out. They perished on the scene days later in a city with no functional hospitals. One lady lost her leg but died.
Twelve individuals were recovered from the wreckage, the last at 4 p.m., six hours after the bombing.
Nadia, still in shock, claimed the blast through her kid and husband down into the basement. The lady held a dachshund called Gloria, owned by her son. Nadia pleaded for the dog’s return.
She wanted a smoke. Her kid had urged her to stop smoking for seven months.
Marukhnenko has no idea what happened to Nadia. Marukhnenko’s dog remains.
The theater is currently in ruins, its side and center charred. The AP footage shows heavy machines circling the ruins to destroy them further. But questions linger: How many and where are they?
A week after the airstrike, a police officer stated the theater smelled like death. He requested anonymity because he had family in the Russian-held area. Contrary to many witnesses’ statements, official media video shows no corpses inside.
An officer and a Mariupol Red Cross official estimated that less than 500 people perished, although most witnesses said the remains were crushed or evacuated by the Russians. Witness evidence and images and videos of the theater before and after the bombing would be vital, said Clint Williamson, the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters from 2006 to 2009.
“It’s going to be tough to move much beyond that,” he remarked.
The assault on the Mariupol theatrical theater was described as an “egregious violation” of international humanitarian law by the OSCE. It determined that “those who authorized or conducted it committed a war crime.” It also ruled that the theater’s demolition was premeditated.
Two munitions specialists consulted by the AP agreed that the devastation pointed to a 500-kilogram bomb dropped by a Russian warplane.
“It’s too much for an artillery shell,” said Mark Cancian, a retired artillery officer and CSIS explosives specialist. “The fact that it struck straight on makes me think they were aiming for that.”
Russian soldiers seek Mariupol because it is a crucial port and a connection connecting Russia-friendly territory in the south and east. However, Kyiv refuses to accept defeat.
Meanwhile, family awaits any news of loved ones. A missing Ukraine Telegram channel includes over 19,000 entries with photographs and facts. More than 9,600 are Mariupol.
The Russians’ actions haunt the survivors of the theater assault.
In Lviv, artists recently created a performance to remember Mariupol’s theater and those slain within.