PARIS (AP) – There is evidence that two Russian airstrikes deliberately targeted a theater used as a shelter in the besieged city of Mariupol, the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday.
The report condemned the attack as a war crime. Amnesty said there was no evidence that the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater was a base for Ukrainian soldiers and there was no indication that it was a refuge for civilians seeking shelter from weeks of relentless shelling and airstrikes.
The March 16 air raid destroyed the building, with the rear and side walls directly collapsing on a field kitchen used as a community space for food, water and scant news about evacuations and the war.
City officials initially estimated about 300 dead. An Associated Press investigation found that the attack may have killed more than 600 people inside and outside the building. Most of the two dozen survivors and witnesses interviewed by AP estimate the number even higher.
Amnesty International investigators have identified 12 of the dead.
Those who testified “saw bodies, remains of bodies. And so we can try to reconstruct. But the truth is, we’ll never know the truth. We’ll never get the final figure. And what’s more or more horrifying to me is that we’ll never know the full names,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, Amnesty’s director-general for Ukraine.
The Amnesty team interviewed 52 survivors and first-hand witnesses, about half of whom were in the theater or nearby. Using satellite images from that morning, they determined that the sky was always clear enough for any pilot to see the word “CHILDREN” written in giant Cyrillic letters on the front and back of the building.
Physicists and weapons analysts examined images of the debris and determined that two 500-kilogram bombs dropped from a Russian plane were the most likely ammunition. Their finding matched the testimony of multiple witnesses who told The Associated Press that they heard two explosions.
Thursday’s report suggested the toll was not as high as the one named by AP or the city, citing some witnesses who believed the building had been emptied over the previous two days as a result of evacuations.
Although two days of evacuation from Mariupol on March 14 and 15 had indeed emptied the theater, newcomers immediately filled the space again, according to nearly all witnesses interviewed by the AP, including a family who arrived on the morning of March 16 to find no room for them. and a man who worked at the “check-in” area on the ground floor.
AP created a 3D model of the building’s floor plan that was repeatedly reviewed by direct witnesses, most from the theater, who detailed where people were hiding. All AP witnesses said there were at least 100 people in the field kitchen just outside, and no one survived. They also said that the rooms and hallways in the building were overcrowded.
By the time the theater was hit, the thousands of residents of Mariupol had been without electricity, running water or internet for more than two weeks. Families lost touch with each other, and many are out of touch to this day, leaving people unable to know whether a loved one is alive or dead.
A Telegram chat for those looking for the missing has thousands of names from Mariupol, and the war’s toll on the city will probably never be known.
In the days following the airstrike, Russian forces took control of the city center. The theater was bulldozed and the remains were taken to the ever-growing mass graves in and around Mariupol.
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