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Agency investigation points to at least 600 dead in Mariupol theater attack | Ukraine and Russia

An investigation led by the American news agency ‘Associated Press’ pointed to the death of at least 600 people in the Russian attack on a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, which served as a refuge for several families.

Oksana Syomina, a Ukrainian interviewee, said that to get out of the building she had to step on bodies.

“The wounded were screaming, as were those trying to find their loved ones,” he said.

Syomina, her husband and about 30 others ran blindly towards the sea and along the coast for nearly five miles (eight kilometers) without stopping, the crumbling theater behind them.

“All the bodies are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there – no one has dug it up. This has become a big mass grave,” Syomina said.

Amid all the horrors that unfolded in the war against Ukraine, the Russian bombing of the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16 stands out as the deadliest known attack on civilians to date.

Theater that housed civilians in Mariupol is bombed

Theater that housed civilians in Mariupol is bombed

According to the agency’s survey, the bombing killed about 600 people inside and outside the building. That’s nearly double the death toll cited so far, and many survivors put the number even higher.

The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater that day from the accounts of 23 survivors, first responders and people intimately familiar with their new life as an air raid shelter. The AP also relied on two sets of theater floor plans, photos and videos taken before, during, and after that day, and feedback from experts who reviewed the methodology.

Satellite image of the Mariupol theater before the bombing shows the word ‘children’.

All witnesses said at least 100 people were in a field kitchen outside, and none survived. They also said that the rooms and hallways inside the building were crowded, with about one person for every 3 square meters of free space.

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 no one doubted that the theater was destroyed in a Russian airstrike precisely aimed at a civilian target that everyone knew was the biggest air raid shelter in the city, with children in it.

Understand the importance of Mariupol, one of Russia's targets in Ukraine

Understand the importance of Mariupol, one of Russia’s targets in Ukraine

Mariupol assumed enormous importance as a symbol of the devastation inflicted by Russian forces and the resistance of Ukraine. The city’s fate now hangs in the balance, and officials say around 20,000 civilians died during the Russian siege. With Mariupol no access, many fear the theater bombing portends more war crimes that have yet to be discovered.

The elegant theater stood on a square in the heart of Mariupol for over 60 years, a stone building with white pillars, a classic frieze and a distinctive red roof. It was once called the Russian Dramatic Theater, but local authorities removed the word “Russian” from the name in 2015. Last July, they ordered all performances to be held in Ukrainian.

See what it was like and how Mariupol was

See what it was like and how Mariupol was

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