LVIV, Ukraine — The blast, deafening and blinding, collapsed the walls around her and “the moments afterward felt like an eternity, waiting to hear my daughter’s scream to know she was alive,” said Viktoria Dubovitskaya. “Her She may be left without legs and arms, but let her live.”
Ms Dubovitskaya, interviewed last month at a shelter in Lviv, western Ukraine, said she and her two young children were among the many civilians who took refuge in the Mariupol Drama Theater on March 16 when it was devastated. by a Russian air attack. A wall fell on her 2-year-old daughter, Nastya, and in those horrific first moments, Dubovitskaya recalls, she didn’t know if the girl had survived.
Finally, he heard it: “Mom!” Nastya screamed. A mattress that had been propped up against the wall fell on her daughter, cushioning the blows. Beneath the shattered masonry, Nastya was alive, but the place where they had sheltered for 11 days, along with hundreds of others, was destroyed.
The theater bombing in Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine, may have killed hundreds of people in a single attack and is one of the most high-profile examples of the atrocities Russia has inflicted in its invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after that attack, President Biden called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a war criminal.
Like much of what has happened in besieged and bombed-out Mariupol, information about the attack on the theater has emerged shakily. It is unclear how many civilians were there or how many were killed, and communication with the city was virtually eliminated. The Mariupol administration says it believes about 300 people were killed in the theater strike. Authorities said they knew of 130 survivors.
Multiple attempts to open safe corridors and evacuate Mariupol residents have been thwarted, with several aid convoys forced to turn back. The mayor said Thursday that he believed at least 5,000 people had been killed in the attacks on the city.
Ms Dubovitskaya, 24, said she lost her phone, with photos of the theater, in the chaos of the bombing, and her story could not be independently verified. But the Instagram account of her husband, Dmitri Dubovitsky, shows photos of the family with geolocation tags showing they were from Mariupol. A friend of Dubovitsky’s, Maksim Glusets, said his wife had also been inside the theater and saw Dubovitskaya and her children, whom they also knew socially from Mariupol.
The New York Times interviewed Ms. Dubovitskaya after a volunteer contacted him to help coordinate outreach to Ukrainian and international media so evacuees could tell their stories. A doctor who helps displaced people informed the volunteer that Ms. Dubovitskaya had arrived in Lviv. Ms. Dubovitskaya said that she wanted to share her account of being in the theater in Mariupol, that she too was left without water and electricity during the fighting, with the West and call on nations to send more weapons to Ukraine.
As the Russian army swept through Mariupol and tightened its cordon around the remaining Ukrainian defenders, people stumbled away in cars and buses, making their way through rubble, craters, burned-out vehicles and Russian military checkpoints.
Ms. Dubovitskaya said that she and her children were on the second floor of the theater, away from the bomb detonation. (Her husband of hers was in Poland, where he had been working since before the war started on February 24). The bomb fell near the stage, she said, and the people who had sheltered there, or in the basement below, had little chance of survival. With fighting nearby and fears of follow-up attacks, emergency services were unable to immediately reach the scene.
“When we went downstairs, we only saw dead bodies,” Dubovitskaya said. “So many bodies. The whole place was covered in blood. We knew that another attack could happen, or that the Russian soldiers could come for a zachistka.,” or “cleaning”, of the city.
“We just ran,” he said. Outside, they heard shelling and the blast of automatic weapons. They saw burning houses.
Her 6-year-old son, Artyom, saw a dead body when he stopped for breath.
“There’s a man lying there,” he said.
His mother responded with a lie. “He’s just taking a nap,” she told him.
They eventually found shelter in a nearby school. On March 23, a week after the theater strike, they finally left the city and headed in the only direction they thought was safe: territory controlled by Russian troops, a town known as Nikolske but referred to by locals as Volodarske. , 14 miles northwest of Mariupol.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dubovitsky began a frantic search for his wife and children. He knew that they had been sheltering inside the theater and crossed back into the Ukraine from Poland to look for them.
“’Even if I only find them as corpses, at least they will be with me,’” his wife said of his mindset at the time.
In an interview, Mr. Dubovitsky, who was staying in the same Lviv shelter with his wife, described his search. He said he arrived on the west side of Mariupol with volunteers who had come to help in the city, entered near the decimated Port City Mall and walked the rest of the way.
He had learned from a friend that his wife and children were alive and sheltered at the school near the theater, but he got there after they left. Someone told him that they had gone to Volodarske, a version confirmed by his friend, Mr. Glusets, whose wife had taken refuge with Mrs. Dubovitskaya in the theater.
In Volodarske, her search began at another school converted into a hostel. She scanned the first floor for familiar faces, then checked several classrooms on the second floor.
In the last room, he despaired: he hadn’t recognized anyone. Then a boy in a familiar coat caught her eye. It was her son, who had changed drastically during the month they had been apart.
“I didn’t recognize him right away,” Dubovitsky said. “I used to have a bit of a belly. But now he had lost so much weight that his ribs were sticking out of his spine.”
The month her son spent in wartime Mariupol affected him deeply, Dubovitskaya said. “He probably knows on an adult level what war is,” she said. “He knows exactly what to do if there is an explosion, how to hide and what kind of hiding place to find. He knows everything.”
But he has been traumatized by what has happened around him, a suffering that became apparent days before the bombing of the theater.
“He fell asleep at lunch and when he woke up, he didn’t know where he was, who I was or who my friend was,” she said. “I immediately carried him to the doctor in my arms. This child does not sit in my arms, never sits at all, and then he allowed me to pick him up and carry him. And I try to talk to him, and he doesn’t recognize me. He calls his mother and does not understand that I am his mother”.
Once she came to her senses 20 minutes later, she said, he told her, “I just want to live.”
Ms Dubovitskaya said the episode reminded her of how much of her childhood had been taken away from her. “He’s not asking for toys or even food,” she said. “He just wants to live.”
It was another visit to a doctor that could have saved the family’s life.
While in the cramped and freezing operating room, her daughter contracted pneumonia, Dubovitskaya said. She so she took her children to a makeshift clinic on the second floor, where they were assigned a place to stay. That moved them away from the point of impact of the bomb.
When her daughter yelled, “Mom!” after the wall fell on her, Dubovitskaya said, happiness and relief washed over her. “I started groping through the rubble,” she said. “I felt a kind of fabric, and it was pulling and pulling. It was all white, except for her face, because she covered her face with a blanket and fell on it.”
“He probably saved her,” Dubovitskaya said, “because if a stone had hit his head, it would be almost impossible for a 2-year-old to survive.”