He lay motionless in his bathrobe in the freezing basement of the theater in Mariupol, covered in dust left by the explosion. Her husband asked her to get out of there and cover her eyes.
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Oksana Syomina did not react. She just looked around her. She today she wishes she hadn’t. She saw dead bodies everywhere, including those of many children. She had to walk among the dead to escape the building that had served as the city’s main bomb shelter for more than a week.
Syomina, her husband and about 30 other people ran toward the sea and then along the coast, almost eight kilometers (five miles), without stopping, away from the ruins of the theater.
“All the people are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there,” Syomina said through tears. “It’s a big mass grave.”
Of all the horrors that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has wrought, the March 16 attack on the Donetsk Regional Dramatic Academy in Mariupol, stands out for apparently being the episode that produced the most civilian casualties to date. An Associated Press investigation found evidence that the attack was more deadly than initially thought and may have killed nearly 600 people, inside and outside the building. This would be double what was previously estimated.
The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater from the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers and people familiar with what happened there when it was used as a bomb shelter. The AP also reconstructed a 3D model of the building based on eyewitness accounts, two sketches of the theater floors, photos and videos, plus input from experts who reviewed the methodology used. With communications almost completely cut off, people constantly coming and going, and memories clouded by trauma, it is impossible to determine the exact death toll.
The AP investigation, however, undermines the Russian version that the theater was demolished by Ukrainian forces or was used as a base by the Ukrainian military. None of the witnesses saw Ukrainian soldiers in the theater. And no one doubts that it was destroyed by a precisely targeted Russian aerial bombardment of a civilian target that included children.