Mariupol has seen the fiercest fighting and the most shocking horrors and bombing of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the early days of the war, Russian forces surrounded the city and have been attacking it relentlessly for almost a month – from the air, land and, recently, from the sea. About 100,000 people remain trapped and under siege. There is no electricity, no gas, no running water.
On 16 March 2022, a Russian plane dropped a heavy bomb on the Mariupol Drama Theater. At the time of the tragedy, close to 1,200 people were sheltering in the theater basement, mostly women, children and elderly citizens. The exact number of wounded, killed and survivors has yet to be clarified. Updates are ongoing…
Nadiya was hiding in the theater basement with her daughter, son-in-law, grandson and elderly grandmother. Here is her eyewitness account of what she and her family witnessed that day.
-We lived in the Eastern District of Mariupol. On 25 February, our entire family decided to leave. A little later, all the residents left. We moved to the 23rd District.
On 8 March, we awoke to a series of loud noises and explosions. Then, something exploded behind the neighbouring building and we heard crashing sounds. Suddenly, something hit our building and the balcony disappeared.
It must have hit the eighth or ninth floor. Three fire trucks arrived at 4:00 pm. They began extinguishing the fire, and then abandoned their efforts. They had very little water, so it was useless to try to stop the fire from spreading. They helped evacuate the elderly and children. We told our grandson and grandmother to leave and take shelter elsewhere. Finally, armoured vehicles arrived to transport the people to safety.
My son-in-law didn’t want to leave, so we decided to stay. Many people were leaving. Only our family and some neighbours on the fifth floor were left in our building. At 8:30 pm, a man told us there would be fighting nearby, that our building would come under heavy fire, and that we should leave as no one could guarantee our safety.
Finally, my daughter and I persuaded my son-in-law to leave. It was past curfew when they brought us to the theater.
We couldn’t find our grandson and grandmother. My daughter and son-in-law ran around searching for them, but couldn’t find them anywhere. You can imagine what state they were in! In the end, they found them and brought them to the theater. We were finally together.
There were a lot of people in the theater. We settled on the third floor of the left wing. There were many people in the corridors, all over the place.
It was crowded everywhere. People were packed like sardines in the basement. There was just nowhere else to go.
We arrived at the theater on 8 March. We spent the night standing. There was nowhere to lie down. Even though there was a parquet floor in the room, it was very cold. The room was large, and it cooled very quickly.
The next day, all of us, together with the volunteers, began boarding up the windows with plywood. It wouldn’t protect us from an explosion, but at least no one would be injured by shattered glass.
The volunteers made life a little easier. They had a field kitchen near the back entrance and cooked something every day. For breakfast, we drank warm boiled water; some people had tea bags, but most of us had nothing. For lunch, the volunteers cooked a kind of broth. For dinner, they handed out hot water again and, if possible, some cookies, especially to children. No one would die of hunger, they said.
The volunteers were just fantastic! There was one young girl who helped everyone. Little Nastya was about 14 or 15 years old.
We took food from a nearby store. It’s embarrassing to talk about it, but it’s true. I understand that it was wrong and I didn’t want to do that. But then, when I realized how many people could be saved, I understood that saving a life was much more important.
I don’t know exactly how many there were. I saw three women with infants. But, they settled in the dressing rooms. We didn’t go to that side of the theater; it’s the right wing. But, I know that someone gave birth during the night.
The volunteers placed the pregnant women in the dressing rooms, because they thought it was better and warmer there. Sadly, it turned out quite differently…
We became friends with a family that had a place in the basement shelter. But, they decided to leave Mariupol just before the bombing. Before their departure, they told us to take their place in the basement. It was simply impossible to get a place there any other way. So, on the eve of the bombing, we managed to move from the third floor to the basement shelter.
People in nearby buildings saw a bright flash, a ball of fire, and an explosion. It was a heavy bomb. It was simply terrifying!
The bomb hit the back side of the theater. It fell obliquely, passing through the right wing to the rear of the theater.
The people in the front area of the theater and in the basement survived. These basements were built in soviet times to shelter the population in the event of war.
Unfortunately, all the people in the back area and in the right wing were killed on the spot.
The dressing rooms accommodating the pregnant women were located in the right wing of the theater… Nobody survived.
How many people died? I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to say. You see, it was morning, and people were lining up for water. There were about 100 people in this queue. The bomb landed there.
My daughter and son-in-law were about to get their water. But suddenly, my son-in-law bent down to tie his shoelaces, and this minute saved their lives. He was on his knees, tying his shoelaces, when the bomb hit the building. The blast wave literally threw him up into the air. Sorry for the details, but we were covered in debris and concrete dust. But, the walls held.
We began making our way out. All the people sheltering in the basement managed to get out. The exits weren’t blocked and everyone was able to leave the building.
There was chaos and blood everywhere. People were screaming and crying; some were hysterical. I, too, was in hysterics. Next to us in the basement lay a young, curly-haired boy. I don’t remember his name. His dad was in the field kitchen when the bomb hit. Everyone was killed. The little boy went into hysterics. I grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him hard and shouted:
“Your father is dead! You must live! You should live… for him!”
To tell the truth, I was in a trance. I saw a girl helping the wounded, and I thought that I could also help out. I applied bandages, but I don’t remember the people that helped. Everything was covered in fog. I only remember someone’s leg, an open wound on someone’s calf, the calf muscles hanging from the open wound, but held in place at the very bottom of the leg, near the ankle joint. And no antiseptic, you understand!? So, I mechanically tied the hanging muscle to the bone.
No bandages. We tore everything that we found into strips and twisted them tightly around the open wounds. I remember some men tearing a blanket into long strips, which I used to bandage someone’s hands and feet. I helped about eight people. But, during those moments, I felt very distressed and agitated… for the life of me, I really can’t remember who these people were. You know, I’m very strong, very resilient, but my brain felt totally blocked.
Everyone else was killed.
Nadiya’s daughter, Natalia, provides more specific details. She claims that there were no more than 400 people in the basements that day.
-I’m pretty sure that there were no more than 400 people in the basement. Several hundred were in the front area of the theater.
I think that about 100 people died during the air strike – all the volunteers and the people who were near the field kitchen waiting for their hot water. The others, in the right wing of the building, died under the rubble, because there was no one to help them out. I think that would be about 200 more people, maybe more.
Among the dead – pregnant women and mothers with babies evacuated from the Mariupol maternity hospital.
People who managed to leave the basement that day ran to other shelters in the city.
Nadiya and her family were able to leave Mariupol the next day.
-A man who lived near the theater helped us get away. He saw my son-in-law trying in vain to start the car, and helped us out. He gave us a battery and ten liters of gas. I don’t know his name. But, he saved our whole family. I dream of returning to Mariupol, finding this man and thanking him. I hope he survives this hell…
Today, Nadiya is safe in free Ukraine. She recounts her tale of survival to friends and acquaintances who, surprisingly enough, still ask her if the Nazis bombed the Mariupol Drama Theater. Nadiya continues telling her story – that a Russian bomb obliterated the theater, that there were no Ukrainian soldiers in the theater, but only Mariupol residents whose homes had been destroyed by the Russians, many women and children.
-They don’t believe me, can you imagine!? I’m speechless! My family and I lost everything. But, you know… I don’t regret a thing! Now, I’m convinced that there’s nothing more precious than life itself…[editorial]In its analysis for the BBC, London-based McKenzie Intelligence Services state that, in all likelihood, just one bomb fell on the theater.
“Due to the missile appearing to accurately hit the center of the building, we believe it is a laser-guided bomb, likely the KAB-500L or similar variant, launched from an aircraft.” say the experts.[/editorial]
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