On March 16, 2022, Russia’s Aerospace Force dropped two bombs on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol. According to Ukrainian official reports, at least 600 civilians were sheltering in the basement of the building at the time.
Two days later, Mariupol City Council reported that nearly 130 survivors had been pulled from the basement. A week on, it reported, citing eyewitnesses, that the bombs had killed about 300 people.
A subsequent independent investigation by the Associated Press suggests the number of fatalities may have reached 600, while Amnesty International believes there may have been fewer victims, referring to “the fact that large numbers of people had left the theatre during the two days prior to the attack, and most of those who remained…were protected from the full brunt of the blast.”
This picture shows the partially destroyed Mariupol drama theatre, bombed last March 16, in Mariupol on April 12, 2022, as Russian troops intensify a campaign to take the strategic port city, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine, while Russia's President makes a defiant case for the war on Russia's neighbour. *EDITOR'S NOTE: This picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military. Alexander NEMENOV / AFP
Two 500-kilogram bombs
Having studied “available evidence regarding the aerial bombs in Russia’s arsenal, Amnesty believes the weapons were most likely two 500 kilogram bombs of the same type, which would yield a total net explosive weight of 440-600 kilograms.”
According to Amnesty’s report ‘Children’: The Attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine” two simultaneous explosions caused the roof and huge portions of two main walls to collapse.
“They destroyed the adjacent interior walls along the sides of the performance space, and then breached the exterior load-bearing walls on the northeastern and southwestern sides of the building.”
“CHILDREN” emblazoned on the theater’s forecourts
The word “Дети” – Russian for “Children” – was written in large letters on forecourts on either side of the building, clearly visible on satellite imagery provided by Maxar Technologies and, later, by Human Rights Watch.
This Maxar satellite image released on March 16, 2022, shows the Mariupol Drama Theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 14, 2022. The building, which had been used as a shelter for hundreds of Ukrainian civilians, had the word “children” written in large white letters (in Russian) on the pavement in front of and behind the theater. It was bombed on March 16, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies / AFP
Russia officially denied the deliberate bomb strike on the Mariupol Drama Theater. Several hours after the tragedy, the Russian Defense Ministry said that there had been “no missions involving strikes on surface targets within the city of Mariupol.”
Instead, Moscow put the blame on the Ukrainian military, claiming they had planted explosives inside the building and blown it up “for propaganda purposes”, but failed to provide any credible evidence.
Many survivors interviewed by Amnesty said that they had seen bloodied bodies and dismembered body parts, including legs and hands, in the rubble of the devastated building following the strike.
None of them, nor any other witnesses around the theater, provided any information to indicate that the theater had been used as a base for operations or a place to store weapons. Amnesty therefore concluded that it was most likely “a deliberate attack on a civilian object” and thus constituted a war crime.
Ukraine’s defense of the city lasted 86 days, of which 82 were spent completely encircled by Russian forces.
According to Ukrainian official reports, Mariupol has been 90 percent destroyed. There are no electricity, water or gas supplies, and food reserves are meager.
It is unknown exactly how many people have died in Mariupol since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022. Based on the nature and scale of destruction, various estimates suggest the total number could be at least 100,000.
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