March 16, 2022, marks the date of the deadliest civilian attack yet in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Residents of Mariupol thought they were safe inside the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater when the building took on a new role as a bomb shelter. A Russian airstrike reduced the theater to rubble, following which began a war crimes investigation.
The Ukrainian government initially estimated the death toll to be approximately 300. However, on May 4, 2022, PBS released details of an Associated Press investigation that painted an even grimmer picture than the one the world saw first.
There were not 300 civilian casualties on March 16 but closer to 600. The number may be even higher as witnesses report the ruined theater is a mass grave. The investigation was built on the accounts of 23 people who were very familiar with the building and two sets of its floor plans. As survivors recount, around 1,000 people were inside at the time of the airstrike, and only about 200 were seen escaping. There could be hundreds of more people interred in the theater.
Witnesses saw people fleeing from the main exit and a side entrance. Those who tried to get out on the other side and back exit were crushed. At least 100 people at a field kitchen just outside the building perished. The rooms and hallways were packed with a person taking up every three meters of free space.
This critical information and reconstruction of the theater using a 3D model concluded that the death toll was much higher than the initially reported number. Photos and videos from that terrible day further support that number, as does feedback from experts who reviewed the data.
The investigation also refutes Russia blaming the tragedy on Ukrainian forces using the theater as a military base. No witness saw any activity of this type or even a single Ukrainian soldier in or around the building. Not a single person doubts that the site was a target, as it was well-known that the theater had become Mariupol’s largest bomb shelter.
James Gow, a professor at King’s College in London, stated that documenting this attack was critical in charging Russia with crimes against humanity. He called the witness testimony “important in establishing if this illegal conduct was systematic.”