Russian Attack on Ukraine Theater Killed 600, Investigation Finds: 'They Thought They Were Safe'

A March 16 bomb strike on Mariupol’s theater, which had been converted into a civilian shelter, was so powerful that some bodies may never be found

Mariupol, Ukraine theater bombed
Mariupol, Ukraine, in the wake of an attack during the Russian invasion. Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock

The March 16 bomb strike on a Ukrainian theater, where more than 1,000 people — mostly women, children and the elderly — were sheltering when it was destroyed, is the single deadliest known attack on civilians to date in Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.

The strike killed close to 600 people inside and outside the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol, the Associated Press reports in a new investigation.

Ukrainian authorities initially said 300 people had died but the AP recreated the attack, including interviews with survivors, rescuers and others familiar with how the building was being utilized as a shelter, as well as a review of images and use of a three-dimensional model of the building.

The outlet said its reporting indicates the death toll is much higher than authorities had said, though an exact number is still difficult to know.

Mariupol officials say more than 20,000 Ukrainians have died in the Russian siege of the strategic city, which began in early March.

Shortly after the invaders arrived in Mariupol, actors, designers and theater administrators took refuge in the building, which could hold 600 audience members, the AP reports. The city later converted the theater into a bomb shelter because of its size, thick walls and a large basement.

Elena Bila, who worked there for 19 years as a stage manager, told the AP that 600 people came to the theater on the first day with more arriving each day. By March 15, some 1,200 people were inside the building, squeezing in wherever they could find room — in offices, hallways, dressing rooms, balconies and in the basement.

They burned seat cushions for cooking. They avoided sleeping on the theater's stage, according to the AP, because its domed ceiling left them feeling vulnerable.

Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre
Mariupol Theater. Google Maps; UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTRY/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A set designer was the one who painted the word "children" in white on the pavement outside the theater, using Cyrillic letters so Russian satellites and passing pilots would know who was inside.

With a group of 16 men guarding the door, people "thought they were safe," Bila told the AP. "In fact, they weren't safe."

Maria Kutnyakova arrived with members of her family and neighbors on March 16 after the building next to their home caught fire. While her mother, Galina, registered with the authorities in the theater, Kutnyakova left to go find her uncle, who lived nearby, per the AP's investigation.

As Kutnyakova walked outside the theater, she heard a plane overhead followed by an explosion.

"So it exploded. Let it explode. I've heard a million bombs like that, and the bottom line is it didn't hit me," Kutnyakova told the AP she thought to herself. Then she saw that the theater had been hit, that portions of its thick white walls had turned to dust and that part of its roof had fallen to the ground. As others rushed from the still-smoldering debris, Maria ran back inside, where she'd left her mother and sister on the third floor.

Kutnyakova couldn't find her mother and sister at first as she roamed through the theater shouting for them, stepping over dead bodies and debris. She found her sister at the bottom of the stairs to the basement, covered in white plaster and holding a cat.

Their mother was on the ground level.

The three women left the building out of a side exit and made their way with about 50 others to Mariupol's Philharmonic nearby, where others were also sheltering, according to the AP. Hours later, that auditorium was also hit.

2022 Maxar Technologies/getty

"I wasn't killed in the theater, but I'm going to die in the philharmonic," Kutnyakova recalled saying to herself. "God, this is my cultural program for the day."

The elegant theater had stood in a square in the heart of Mariupol for more than 60 years, a stone building with white pillars, a classical 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 conducted in Ukrainian.

Dmitriy Yurin was on his way to the theater to get something to eat and drink on the morning of his birthday, March 16, when the bomb hit. The force of the explosion knocked him to the ground.

"I looked at my arms, and they were covered in blood up to the elbow," he told the AP. "And I was in a stupor, just shock."

After about 20 minutes, Yurin began helping rescuers remove the wounded from the burning wreckage but many of them were buried too deep to be extracted.

"Some of them weren't alive, and some of them breathed their last on the street," he said. "We said goodbye to them."

He recalled seeing a young woman about 25 years old. After rescuers moved her to a flowerbed, Yurin said two women and a child stood next to her, trying to comfort her as they wept.

"We'll live, don't die, everything will be fine," the women said, according to Yurin. "You'll get help."

But the woman died in front of them in the empty flowerbed.

Yurin escaped Mariupol by swimming half a mile "like a dog" in the frigid Azov Sea, wearing a neoprene suit he used on the job as a fisherman and wrapping his feet in plastic for warmth, according to the AP. After a days-long journey, he made his way to relative safety in Western Ukraine, far away from the decimated theater.

Ukraine War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine. ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty

A police officer, who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation by Russian occupiers, told the AP that a week after the strike the smell of death around the theater was overwhelming. But he saw no bodies.

Video of the scene that aired on state media in Russia likewise showed no bodies in the rubble, appearing to back up Russian denials that its bombs leveled the theater and their repeated claims of not targeting civilians across Ukraine.

Munitions experts told the AP the destruction suggests a 500-kilogram bomb was dropped intentionally on the theater by a Russian warplane. The massive amount of power unleashed on the people inside could explain why so many of the dead are missing.

Survivors have their own theories: Russians removed the bodies they were able to find, while many others were obliterated into dust.

"All the people are still under the rubble," Oksana Syomina, who sheltered in the theater before the strike, said. "This is one big mass grave."

Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/Shutterstock

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but thousands of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children, though the actual number of deaths is difficult to determine.

More than 5.5 million have fled the country as refugees — and half are children, according to the United Nations. Millions more have been displaced inside Ukraine.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces amassed in the region, various countries are offering aid or military support to the resistance. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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