- Hugo Bachega and Orysia Khimiak
- From BBC News in Lviv (Ukraine)
As the port city of Mariupol was being reduced to rubble by Russian bombs, hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, went into hiding in a theater near the waterfront, a large Soviet-era building.
Last Wednesday, a bomb dropped and — within seconds — the building was torn in two and razed to the ground. We still don’t know how many died, but the BBC spoke to survivors who described for the first time what happened when the bomb fell.
All morning, Russian planes flew over the city’s skies.
Mariia Rodionova, a 27-year-old teacher, had been living at the theater for 10 days, having fled her ninth-floor apartment with her two dogs. She camped beside the stage in an auditorium near the back of the building.
That morning, she took some fish scraps from an outdoor kitchen to feed her dogs, but later realized they hadn’t been drinking any water. Then, around 10am, she tied her dogs to her bags and headed towards the main entrance, where a line was forming for hot water.
There was a loud popping sound. And then the sound of broken glass. A man came from behind and pushed her against a wall, protecting her with his own body.
The blast was so loud that she felt an intense pain in one of her ears, so intense that she thought her eardrum had burst. She only realized her eardrums were fine because she could hear people screaming. There were screams everywhere.
The force of the blast threw another man against a window. He fell to the floor, his face covered in shards of glass. A woman, who also had a head wound, tried to help him. Mariia, who was a volunteer at the Ukrainian Red Cross in Mariupol, gathered her senses enough to scream, asking the woman to stop.
Screams of a five year old girl
“I said, ‘Wait, don’t touch him. I’ll bring my first aid kit and help you two,'” she recalled. But her kit was inside the theater, and that part of the building had collapsed. “There was only rubble,” she said. It was impossible for her to enter.
“For two hours, I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I just stood there. I was in shock.”
Vladyslav, a 27-year-old locksmith who declined to give his full name, also entered the building that morning. He had some friends inside and went looking for them. He was near the main entrance when the explosion happened. He ran with others to a basement, and 10 minutes later he learned that the building was on fire.
“Horrible things were happening,” he said.
Vladyslav saw many people bleeding. Some had open fractures. “A mother was trying to find her children under the rubble. A five-year-old was screaming, ‘I don’t want to die.’ It was heartbreaking.”
It’s likely that just one bomb did all this damage to the theater that morning, McKenzie Intelligence Services’ analysis for the BBC concluded.
“Because the missile appears to accurately hit the center of the building, we believe it to be a laser-guided bomb, likely the KAB-500L or similar variant, launched from an aircraft,” the London-based group said.
“The nature of the explosion indicates that it was armed with an instantaneous fuse, so it was unable to penetrate the ground floors.”
Due to the accuracy of the attack, it is very likely that the theater was the chosen target.
Satellite images released by the US company Maxar, taken days before the attack, show that the word “children” in Russian was clearly painted on the lawn in front of the theater, visible from any passing military aircraft.
Russia denies having attacked the theater. It also denied hitting civilian targets in Ukraine, although its attacks on numerous residential buildings and other non-military installations have been well documented across the country and nowhere more brutally than in Mariupol.
Andrei Marusov, an investigative journalist from Mariupol, had visited the theater two days before the attack. “Everyone knew it was an important point for many women and children,” said Marusov, former president of Transparency International Ukraine. “There were only civilians there.”
That Wednesday, the day of the bombing, he had climbed to the top of his building at 6 am to look out over the city. Planes were still flying in the air. He said Russian planes bombed the theater area, the shore of the Sea of Azov, all morning.
“I saw that the center of the city was covered in fire and constant explosions,” he said.
Mariia also remembers military planes “circling” near the theater that morning and “dropping bombs elsewhere”. But it was not uncommon for her to see military planes flying over the area. She had gotten used to their sound.
There are still many details that remain unclear about the attack. It is believed that up to a thousand people were sheltered in the theater. Some appeared to have based themselves in their underground bunker or air raid shelter, according to others who hid in the building and city officials. Mariia saw other people living in crowded hallways on higher floors.
One thing that is clear from the reports the BBC has heard is that people roamed the complex, its corridors and grounds, and others came and went.
The day after the attack, the city council said 130 people had been rescued. In a later update, officials said possibly many more had survived. But there has been no news since then. The city is in such a desperate state that we may never have a clear picture of how many people were in the theater and how many survived.
Mariia’s “home” inside the theater during the days she was there was in an auditorium with a beautiful chandelier on the ceiling. She settled in right next to the stage, because her dogs had drawn some complaints. She said there were about 30 people in that hall and she believes all of them must have died when the bomb fell. It was pure luck that she left at that moment.
After the explosions, she couldn’t find her dogs, which was desperate: “For me,” she said, “my dogs were more important than anything.”
Vladyslav said he saw many people coming out of the building, something that Mariia also saw.
running away from the city
“Some had their bags,” she said. “No one knew what to do, and the area was still being bombed.”
Outside the theater, she also watched the damage. She realized there was no point in looking for another shelter. It was a stunned few hours and she finally left.
She tried to stop any car leaving town. “People were panicking,” she said, “nobody gave me a ride.”
She started walking along the coast. First, she arrived at the village of Pishchanka.
“I met a woman who asked if I was okay. I started crying,” he said.
They gave her tea and food and invited her to stay the night. The next morning, she kept walking, until she reached Melekyne. A curfew meant she had to stop walking at 8pm. The next day, she walked to Yalta. And the next, to Berdyansk. “I walked all this time,” she said.
Mariupol saw the worst horrors of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. The invading troops surrounded the city and attacked it relentlessly for nearly a month, from the air, from the land and, in recent days, from the sea as well. About 100,000 people remain trapped, subjected to a medieval siege. No electricity, no gas, no running water.
When Mariia left her apartment to go to the theater, her grandmother, who lived with her, refused to go. “She just said, ‘It’s my apartment, my house. I’m going to die here.’
Mariia is still waiting to find out if she is alive.
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