Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, civilians began fleeing their homes as cities and towns were targeted by military attacks. In besieged Mariupol in the Donetsk region, the theatre became a safe haven for civilians seeking shelter from fighting.
The theatre, in the city’s Tsentralnyi district, was a hub for the distribution of medicine, food and water, and a designated gathering point for people hoping to be evacuated via humanitarian corridors. The building was clearly recognizable as a civilian object, perhaps more so than any other location in the city.
Locals had also written the giant Cyrillic letters “Дети” – Russian for “children” – on forecourts on either side of the building, which would have been clearly visible to Russian pilots and also on satellite imagery.
Nevertheless, Russian bombs struck the theatre shortly after 10am on 16 March, producing a large explosion which caused the roof and huge portions of two main walls to collapse. At the time of the attack, hundreds of civilians were in and around the theatre.
Amnesty International believes that at least a dozen people were killed by the strike and likely many more, and that many others were seriously injured. This estimate is lower than previous counts, reflecting the fact that large numbers of people had left the theatre during the two days prior to the attack, and most of those who remained were in the theatre’s basement and other areas that were protected from the full brunt of the blast.
When the bombs detonated, they destroyed the adjacent interior walls along the sides of the performance space, and then breached the exterior load-bearing walls, creating two main debris fields on the north-eastern and south-western sides of the building. Both debris fields are visible on satellite imagery taken just minutes after the strike.
Ihor Moroz, a 50-year-old architect, was nearby when the theatre was hit. He told Amnesty International: “It all happened in front of our eyes. We were 200 or 300 metres away [when] the explosion happened… I could hear a plane and the sound of bombs dropping. Then we saw the roof [of the theatre] rise up.”
Grigoriy Golovniov, a 51-year-old entrepreneur, said: “I was walking down the street leading to the drama theatre… I could hear the noise of a plane… but at that time I didn’t really pay attention because [planes] were constantly flying around… I saw the roof of the building explode… It jumped 20 metres and then collapsed… then I saw a lot of smoke and rubble… I couldn’t believe my eyes because the theatre was a sanctuary. There were two big ‘children’ signs.”
Vitaliy Kontarov, a 48-year-old truck driver, was also close to the theatre at the time of the attack. He told Amnesty International: “We heard planes… I saw two missiles fire from one plane towards the theatre.”