LVIV, Ukraine – The explosion – deafening, blinding – brought down the walls around them, and “the moments that followed felt like an eternity, waiting to hear my child’s cry to know that she was alive,” Viktoria Dubovitskaya said. “Maybe she will be without legs or arms, but just let her live.”
Ms Dubovitskaya, interviewed last month at a shelter in Lviv, western Ukraine, said she and her two young children were among many civilians who took refuge at the Mariupol Drama Theater on March 16 when was devastated by a Russian airstrike. A wall fell on her 2-year-old daughter, Nastya, and in those horrific first moments, Ms Dubovitskaya recalled, she didn’t know if the girl had survived.
Finally, she heard him: “Mom!” Nastya shouted. A mattress that had been wedged against the wall fell against her daughter, cushioning the blows. Beneath the broken masonry, Nastya was alive, but the place where they had taken refuge for 11 days, along with hundreds of others, was destroyed.
The bombing in Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine, killed perhaps hundreds of people in a single strike and is one of the starkest examples of the atrocities Russia has inflicted during of his invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after this attack, President Biden called Russian President Vladimir V. Putin a war criminal.
Like much of what happened in beleaguered and bombarded Mariupol, news of the theater attack emerged in an unstable trickle. It is not known how many civilians were there or how many died, and communication with the town was virtually eliminated. The Mariupol administration says it believes around 300 people died in the theater strike. Officials said they know of 130 survivors.
Multiple attempts to open safe corridors and evacuate residents of Mariupol were thwarted, and several aid convoys were forced to turn back. The mayor said Thursday he believed at least 5,000 people had been killed in attacks on the city.
Ms Dubovitskaya, 24, said she lost her phone, along with photographs of the theater, in the chaos of the bombing, and her story could not be independently verified. But her husband’s Instagram account, Dmitri Dubovitsky, features photographs of the family with geotags showing they were from Mariupol. A friend of Mr Dubovitsky, Maksim Glusets, said his wife was also inside the theater and saw Mrs Dubovitskaya and her children, whom they also knew socially in Mariupol.
The New York Times interviewed Ms Dubovitskaya after being contacted by a volunteer helping coordinate outreach to Ukrainian and international media so evacuees could tell their stories. The volunteer was told by a doctor who helps displaced people that Ms Dubovitskaya had arrived in Lviv. Ms Dubovitskaya said she wanted to share with the West her story of being in the Mariupol theater, which was also cut off from water and electricity during the fighting, and ask nations to send more arms to Ukraine.
As the Russian army razed Mariupol and tightened its cordon around the remaining Ukrainian defenders, people fled in spurts, in cars and buses weaving through rubble, craters, burned-out vehicles and hotspots. Russian military controls.
Ms Dubovitskaya said she and her children were on the second floor of the theatre, away from the bomb blast. (Her husband was in Poland, where he had worked since before the war began on Feb. 24.) The bomb hit near the scene, she said, and people who had taken refuge there, or in the basement below, had little chance of surviving. With fighting raging nearby and subsequent strikes feared, emergency services were unable to get to the scene immediately.
“When we came down we just saw corpses,” Ms Dubovitskaya said. “So many bodies. The whole place was covered in blood. We knew another strike might happen, or Russian soldiers might come for a zachistka,or “cleaning up” the city.
“We just ran,” she said. Outside, they heard shelling and bursts of automatic weapons. They saw houses on fire.
Her 6-year-old son, Artyom, saw a corpse as he paused to breathe.
“There’s a man lying over there,” he pointed out.
His mother replied with a lie. “He’s just taking a nap,” she told him.
They eventually found refuge in a nearby school. On March 23, a week after the theater strike, they finally left the city, heading in the only direction they thought was safe: territory held by Russian troops, a town known as Nikolske but which the locals call Volodarske, 22 km northwest of Mariupol.
In the meantime, Mr. Dubovitsky launched a frantic search for his wife and children. He knew they had taken refuge inside the theatre, and he returned to 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 mentality at the time.
In an interview, Mr Dubovitsky, who was staying at the same Lviv shelter with his wife, described his search. He said he arrived from the western side of Mariupol with volunteers who had come to help in the city, entering near the decimated Port City mall and walking the rest of the way.
He had learned from a friend that his wife and children were alive and housed in the school near the theatre, but he got there after they left. Someone told him they had gone to Volodarske, an account confirmed by his friend Mr. Glusets, whose wife had taken refuge with Mrs. Dubovitskaya in the theatre.
In Volodarske, her search began in another school turned into a shelter. He scanned the first floor for familiar faces, then checked several classrooms on the second floor.
In the last room, he was in despair—he hadn’t recognized anyone. Then, a child in a familiar coat caught his eye. It was her son, who had changed dramatically in the month they had been apart.
“I didn’t recognize him right away,” Mr. Dubovitsky said. “Before, he had a little 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, Ms Dubovitskaya said. “He probably knows on an adult level what war is,” she said. “He knows exactly what to do in the event of an explosion, how to hide and what kind of hiding place to find. He knows everything.”
But he was traumatized by what happened around him – a pain that became evident days before the theater bombing.
“He fell asleep at lunch, and when he woke up he didn’t know where he was or who I was or who my friend was,” she said. “I immediately took him to the doctor in my arms. This child does not sit in the arms — he 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 he doesn’t understand that I’m his mother.
Once he came to his senses 20 minutes later, she said, he told her, “I just want to live.”
Ms Dubovitskaya said the episode made her realize how much her childhood had been taken away from her. “He doesn’t ask for toys or even food,” she said. “He just wants to live.”
It was another visit to a doctor that might have saved the family’s life.
Standing in the crowded and freezing theater, her daughter developed pneumonia, Ms Dubovitskaya said. So she took her children to a makeshift clinic on the second floor, where they were assigned accommodation. This took them away from the point of impact of the bomb.
When her daughter shouted “Mom!” after the wall fell on her, Ms. Dubovitskaya said, happiness and relief washed over her. “I started groping around in the rubble,” she said. “I felt some kind of fabric, and I just tugged and tugged. She was all white, except for her face, because she covered her face with a blanket and fell into it.
“It probably saved her,” Ms. Dubovitskaya said, “because if a stone had hit her head, it would be next to impossible for a 2-year-old to survive.”