- Hugo Bachega & Orysia Khimiak
- BBC News, Lviv, Ukraine
As the port city of Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, was leveled by Russian bombs, hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, sought shelter in a theater near the city’s waterfront, a large building from the era soviet
On March 16, a bomb fell on the theater and within seconds the building was split in two and left in ruins. It is still unknown how many people died.
The BBC spoke to survivors who described for the first time what happened when the bomb detonated.
All morning, Russian planes had been flying in the skies over the city.
Mariia Rodionova, a 27-year-old teacher, had been living in the theater for 10 days after fleeing her ninth-floor apartment with her two dogs. Mariia herself camped next to the stage of an auditorium, near the back of the building.
That morning he had gotten some leftover fish from an outdoor field kitchen to feed his dogs, but then realized they hadn’t had any water to drink.
So around 10:00, he tied his dogs to his suitcase and walked towards the main entrancewhere a queue was forming for hot water.
At that moment the bomb fell.
A thunderous sound was heard. Then the sound of breaking glass. A man came up behind Mariia and pushed her against a wall, shielding her from it with her own body.
The explosion was so strong that he felt intense pain in one of his ears, so intense that he thought his eardrum must have ruptured. She only realized that it was not the case because she could hear the screams of the people. The moans and screams they heard all over.
The force of the explosion threw another man against a window. He fell to the ground, his face covered in broken glass. A woman, who also had a head injury, tried to help him.
Maria, who had been a volunteer with the Ukrainian Red Cross in Mariupol, composed herself enough to yell at him and tell him to stop.
The screams of a 5 year old
“I told him ‘wait a minute, don’t touch it. I’ll get my first aid kit and help you both,'” he recalled.
But his medicine cabinet was inside the theater and that part of the building had collapsed. “There was just rubble,” she said. It was impossible to enter.
“For two hours I couldn’t do anything,” said Mariia. “I just stayed there. I was in shock“.
Vladyslav, a 27-year-old locksmith who does not want to use his full name, had also entered the building that morning. He had some friends there and he went looking for them.
He was near the main entrance when the explosion happened. She ran with others into a basement, and 10 minutes later, she heard the building catch on fire and emerged into a scene of chaos.
“Terrible things were happening,” he recalled.
He saw many people bleeding. Some had open fractures. “A mother was trying to find her children under the rubble. A 5-year-old boy was screaming: ‘I don’t want to die’. he was heartbreaking“.
“A Laser Guided Bomb”
It is likely that it was just a bomb that fell on the theater that morning, bringing with it all that destruction, concluded the analysis by McKenzie Intelligence Services, an intelligence think tank, for the BBC.
“Because the missile appeared to accurately hit the center of the building, we believe it was a laser-guided bomb, likely a KAB-500L or similar variant, launched from an aircraft,” the London-based center said.
“The nature of the explosion indicates that the bomb was armed with a flash fuse, so it was unable to penetrate the ground floor.”
From the precision of the attack, it is very likely that the theater was the chosen target.
Satellite images released by the US company Maxar from the days before the attack show that the word “children” in Russian was clearly painted on the grass in front of the theater, visible to any passing bomber.
Russia denies bombing the theater.
He has also denied targeting civilian sites in Ukraine, although his attacks on countless residential buildings and other non-military installations have been well documented across the country and nowhere with greater brutality than in Mariupol.
Andrei Marusov, an investigative journalist from Mariupol, had visited the theater two days before the attack.
“Everyone knew it was a focal point for many women and childrensaid Marusov, a former president of the group Transparency International in Ukraine. “There were only civilians there.”
That Wednesday, the day of the bombing, Andrei had climbed to the top of his building at 06:00 to survey the city. The planes were still buzzing in the air.
He said that Russian planes had been shooting and shelling the area where the theater was located, that coastal area 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 recalls that military planes “circled” near the theater that morning and “dropped bombs elsewhere.”
But it was not unusual for her to see military aircraft flying in the area. She had gotten used to the sound of it.
There are still many details that are not clear about the attack. It is believed that up to 1,000 people had taken refuge in the theater.
Some appeared to have taken up residence in the building’s underground shelter, according to witnesses who had been to the theater and city authorities. Mariia also saw some people living in crowded hallways on the upper floors.
One thing that is clear from the accounts collected by the BBC is that people wandered throughout the building, its corridors and grounds, with others coming and going.
The day after the attack, the city council said that 130 people had been rescued. It was later reported that possibly many others had survived. But there has been no news since then.
The city is in such a dire and desperate state that how many people were there and how many survived may never be known.
Maria had positioned herself at the theater in an auditorium with a chandelier, huddled right next to the stage because her dogs had drawn complaints from other people.
The young woman said there were about 30 people in that auditorium and she thinks they must all have been killed when the bomb went off. It was sheer luck that she had come out at that time.
After the explosions he couldn’t find his dogs and felt despair: “For me,” he said, “my dogs were more important than anything.”
Vladislav claimed that saw many people leaving the building after the explosionsomething that Maria also perceived.
escaping from the city
“Some people were dragging their bags,” he said. “Nobody knew what to do, and the area kept getting bombed.”
Outside the theater, he paused for a moment to survey the damage. She realized that there was no point in seeking another refuge.
She had been in a daze for a few hours and finally left the place.
He tried to stop any car leaving the city. “People were in a panic,” he said, “no one took me in their car”.
Maria began to walk along the coast. “I needed to get out of town.”
He first came to the town of Pishchanka. “I met a woman,” she said, “who asked me if she was okay. I started crying.”
They offered her tea and food, and invited her to spend the night. The next morning, she kept walking until she reached Melekyne. Due to the curfew she had to stop at 20:00.
A day later, he walked to Yalta. The next day, to Berdyansk. “I walked all that time,” she recounted.
Mariupol has seen the worst horrors of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
The invading troops have surrounded the city and attacked it relentlessly for almost a month, by air, land and, in recent days, also from the sea.
Some 100,000 people are still trappedsubjected to a medieval siege, without electricity, without gas, without running water.
When Mariia left her flat to go to the theater, her grandmother, who lived with her, refused to go. “She just said, ‘This is my apartment, my home. I’m going to die here.'”
Maria still doesn’t know if her grandmother is alive.
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