Evidence suggests that two Russian airstrikes deliberately targeted a theater being used as a shelter in the besieged city of Mariupol, the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report published on 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 of operations for Ukrainian soldiers and all indications were that it was a haven for civilians seeking protection after weeks of relentless shelling and airstrikes.
The March 16 airstrike devastated the building, collapsing its rear and side walls directly onto a field kitchen used as a community gathering space for food, water, and scant news about the evacuations and the war.
City officials initially estimated around 300 dead. An Associated Press investigation found that the attack may have killed as many as 600 people inside and outside the building. Most of the two dozen survivors and witnesses interviewed by AP put the number even higher.
Amnesty International researchers identified 12 of the dead.
Those who gave testimony “saw bodies, remains of bodies. And so we can try to reconstruct. But the truth is that we will never know the truth. We will never know the final figure. And what horrifies me the most is that we will 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 or near the theater. Using satellite imagery from that morning, they determined that the sky was consistently 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 munitions. His finding was consistent with testimony from several witnesses who told The Associated Press they had heard two explosions.
Thursday’s report suggested the death toll was not as high as that cited by the AP or the city, citing some witnesses who believed the building had emptied due to evacuations in the previous two days.
Yet while two days of evacuations from Mariupol on March 14 and 15 had emptied the theater, new arrivals immediately filled the space again, according to nearly all witnesses interviewed by AP, including a family who arrived on the morning of March 16. March to find no room for them and a man working in the “check-in” area on the ground floor.
AP created a 3D model of the floor plan of the building repeatedly reviewed by eyewitnesses, most inside the theater, who described in detail where people sheltered. All of the AP witnesses said that at least 100 people were in the field kitchen just outside and that none survived. They also said that the rooms and corridors inside the building were full.
When the theater was demolished, the thousands of residents of Mariupol had been without electricity, running water or the Internet for more than two weeks. Families lost contact with each other, and many remain out of touch to this day, leaving people unable to tell if a loved one is alive or dead.
A Telegram chat for people searching for the missing has thousands of names from Mariupol, and the cost of the war on the city will likely never be known.
In the days after the airstrike, Russian forces took control of the city center. The theater was demolished and the remains were taken to the ever-increasing mass graves in and around Mariupol.
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