An Associated Press investigation has revealed that around 600 people, and potentially many more, were killed in the attack on a Mariupol theater in Ukraine when the Russian military bombed the building that was being utilized as a primary bomb shelter in the country.
“When people came in, they thought they were safe,” Elena Bila, who was a stage manager at the theater for 19 years, said. “In fact, they weren’t safe.”
Russian forces bombed the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol on March 16, shocking the world. According to the AP, the bombing was “the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date” in the war.
An AP investigation found proof showing that the true death toll was likely nearer to 600 people who were inside and outside of the structure. The number is nearly double the toll that has been discussed up to this point, with a lot of survivors saying there were probably even more deaths.
In its investigation, the AP recreated the events inside the theater using the descriptions of 23 survivors, people rescuing others, and individuals closely aware of the use of the structure as a bomb shelter. The outlet also used two sets of the theater floor plans, as well as pictures and videos taken inside the building from before, during, and after the day. It also relied on comments from experts who looked into the outlet’s strategy of investigation.
The outlet noted that it is not possible to know an exact number since communication was cut off and people were constantly going to and from the building. A document gathered by the AP noted that the government initially thought that around 300 people had died and has since started a war crimes investigation.
AP reporters used a 3D model of the theater’s layout, which witnesses also looked at multiple times, who spoke about where people were inside the building.
Lots of survivors reportedly said that around 1,000 people were in the building when it was attacked, but the highest amount that anyone saw get out, as well as rescuers, was about 200 people. People who survived mostly got out through the main exit or a side door. The back of the building and the opposing side were demolished.
The AP noted that there were a few other witnesses who had different accounts, with one saying there were only a couple of hundred people inside, and one saying around 1,300 people were in the building.
Russia has also reportedly claimed that the building was destroyed by Ukrainian forces or said it was operating as a base for the Ukrainian military. The AP investigation said this is not true, as no one witnessed Ukrainian soldiers working inside the structure.
The outlet added, “And not one person doubted that the theater was destroyed in a Russian air attack aimed with precision at a civilian target everyone knew was the city’s largest bomb shelter, with children in it.”
Survivors continue to be distressed by the Russian military’s attack.
“They came not to capture the city — they came to destroy it,” Maria Kutnyakova said, whose mother escaped out of the building and whose sister survived the attack. “They are trying to hide how many people actually died in Mariupol, hide their crimes.”
“This strong witness testimony will be important in establishing that (Russian illegal) conduct was widespread or systematic,” James Gow, a professor of international security at King’s College London, said, per the outlet.
Around a week prior to the attack, the set designer at the theater wrote “CHILDREN” in Cyrillic letters and white paint outside the building on the ground, hoping to deter a potential air attack. The AP noted that the signs, which were written at the front and back entrances, were able to be deciphered from satellites.
Russian government media collected video showing no bodies in the building. The low amount of bodies made a police officer and an official with the Mariupol Red Cross believe that maybe fewer than 500 people were killed, but the majority of survivors “suggested the bodies were either pulverized into the dust or removed by the Russians,” per the outlet.