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One onslaught, one family, one lucky chance: Surviving Mariupol theater bombing

by Asami Terajima April 17, 2022 3:05 AM 6 min read
This picture shows the partially destroyed Mariupol Drama Theater, struck by Russian forces on March 16, in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, on April 12, 2022. Editor's Note: This picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military. (AFP via Getty Images)
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Viktoria Dubovitska, 24, and her two children survived the Russian bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater by pure luck.

Like hundreds of Mariupol residents, Dubovitska's family was sheltering near the theater’s main stage.

But on March 16, her two-year-old daughter Anastasia got sick, and the family was offered a place on the second floor.

On the same day, Russians dropped a massive bomb on the theater. The stage area was the epicenter of the explosion. The building crashed and hundreds were killed.

“We stepped over (bodies) and ran out,” Dubovitska told the Kyiv Independent.

The exact death toll of Russia’s March 16 strike on the Mariupol Drama Theater is yet unknown. According to the Human Rights Watch, the theater was used as a shelter by over 600 people, most of whom were women, children, and the elderly. The word “children” was written in Russian on both sides of the building, to warn Russians against bombing it.

Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said that only 130 people were able to escape the theater.

The Mariupol City Council reported that “according to eyewitnesses,” around 300 people had been killed in the theater in what appears to be the single deadliest Russian assault to date.

Dubovitska said no one was able to get inside the theater after the bombing to rescue the civilians trapped inside, as Russia never stopped shelling and bombing Mariupol.

The city has been heavily bombarded since Feb. 24 when Russia launched its all-out war against Ukraine and has been besieged since early March.

According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian forces killed at least 3,000 Mariupol residents, and 90% of all buildings in Mariupol were damaged or destroyed.

Local authorities, however, said as many as 22,000 civilians may have been killed in Mariupol.

Two-year-old daughter Anastasia sits on her mother Viktoria Dubovitska's laps in a temporary shelter in Lviv on April 2, 2022. (The Kyiv Independent)

City under siege

Mariupol’s humanitarian crisis escalated so quickly that it was too late for people to leave the city when they realized the severity of the situation.

Despite the city being under attack since Feb. 24, Dubovitska didn’t think she needed to flee. After all, she remembered that Mariupol had withstood a brief Russian occupation in 2014, during Russia's initial push to occupy eastern Ukraine.

She couldn’t have imagined the atrocities that would be waiting for her and the rest of those who chose to stay in the city with a pre-war population of 450,000.

The day when the war’s deadliest attack on civilians took place in Mariupol’s theater, there were some 300,000 people still trapped in the city. Encircled by Russian troops and cut off communications since March 2, efforts to deliver humanitarian aid into the city have repeatedly been blocked by the Russian forces.

Russia’s siege has left Mariupol residents hungry, dehydrated and stuck in cold basements to avoid indiscriminate Russian shelling. Electricity, gas and water have been cut off, and the city’s internet and mobile networks have not been working since early March.

Photos of workers hastily burying dead bodies in mass graves under steady bombardment have been published worldwide.

Since the city is under siege, it is impossible for the authorities to record and count all casualties.

Donetsk Oblast Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko has so far given the gloomiest estimates saying that between 20,000 to 22,000 civilians may have been killed in Mariupol.

Ukrainian intelligence has recorded 13 mobile crematoriums used by Russian troops to “cover up the traces of their war crimes.”

Russian occupiers have begun exhuming the bodies and each courtyard has its own guard not to allow residents to bury the bodies, the Mariupol City Council reported. “Why the exhumation is being carried out and where the bodies will be sent is unknown,” the statement said.

Read also: Voices of besieged Mariupol: ‘It’s not even comparable to hell’

Sheltering in theater

Dubovitska first came to the theater-turned-shelter on March 5. Her apartment building had been shelled at least four times.

Dubovitska said there were around 1,500 people inside the theater at the time. She had to beg to get in because it was already full. Dubovitska and her kids spent most nights sleeping on the floor.

Her family was given a bowl of soup once a day. There was only enough food to feed the children, so adults would eat the leftovers, Dubovitska said.

As more people left in attempts to flee the city, Dubovitska said there was eventually enough food for adults to receive one meal each day as well. People mostly sat quietly, looking out the windows to see what was going on outside.

Dubovitska took some videos in Mariupol, but she had to delete them all when passing through Russian-controlled checkpoints on her way out of the city. As expected, the Russians asked the people fleeing the city to show their phones and documents.

“It was scary because they could have forced us out (of the vehicle), and we would have been left there,” she said.

Six-year-old Artem plays with a puzzle in a temporary shelter in Lviv on April 2, 2022 after escaping besieged Mariupol with his family. (The Kyiv Independent)

Surviving airstrike

Dubovitska remembers that the morning of March 16 was quieter than usual.

After Mariupol’s department store and the road that leads to the theater were bombed at around 5 a.m, hours of silence followed.

“It was strange,” Dubovitska said.

Not knowing what was ahead, she joked around with those sheltering that the Russians were suspiciously silent and something even more horrifying might happen soon.

It turned out to be true.

The explosion suddenly hit when Dubovitska was walking into her room on the second floor. Air raid sirens hadn’t been working for days.

The blast was so powerful that it threw her at the wall. She hit her face and injured her back, but says she didn’t feel the pain at that moment.

All she could think about was her kids. Dubovitska could neither see nor breathe after the explosion because of all the dust in the air. She heard her son Artem screaming not far from her, but the younger Anastasia was nowhere to be seen.

She began looking for her daughter. It took her about 20 minutes to find Anastasia, who was covered in dust and was hard to identify at first.

Dubovitska ran back upstairs to grab her documents before fleeing the theater.

With them she took a young boy named Nazar, whom she found alone in the building while looking for her daughter Anastasia.

She saw many people lying on the floor. She doesn’t know whether they were alive or not.

As soon as they stepped out of the ruined theater, the four of them ran as fast as they could. Dubovitska was afraid to stop because Russians continued to shell the city.

Leaving Nazar with the few rescue officers that were present near the site, Dubovitska and her two children took shelter at a school nearby.

After spending a week there, a woman she met at the shelter agreed to take Dubovitska's family to Nikolske in Donetsk Oblast. There, Dubrovitskaya reunited with her husband, who was working in Poland when the war started.

They soon moved to Lviv, a regional capital in western Ukraine that welcomed many internally displaced people.

Though she spoke with a calm tone throughout the interview, Dubovitska was visibly in pain when talking about Russia’s destruction of her hometown.

“Why did they particularly choose to bombard Mariupol?” she heightened her tone as she asked the question, and immediately offered an answer: “It was entertainment for them.”

Though born in Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014, she had lived the majority of her life in Mariupol. This was where she met her husband and got married, had kids and made many memories.

Viktoria Dubovitska and her two children share a temporary shelter with several others in Lviv on April 2, 2022. (The Kyiv Independent)

Dubovitska's children haven’t been able to sleep normally since surviving the attack in Mariupol.

What happened on March 16 was a shock for two-year-old Anastasia, who was injured during the explosion, Dubovitska said. It took her daughter days to start talking again.

Seeing blood-covered bodies was a shock to her six-year-old son Artem as well.

For Dubovitska, wrapping her head around Russia’s cruelty was no easier.

“I just cried and couldn’t understand how this all happened,” she said.

10 months after Mariupol theater bombing, family struggles to forget harrowing screams and dead bodies

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