Elyzaveta Fatayeva was sitting on a blanket in the basement, next to her boyfriend, when the theater exploded above her. The whole building convulsed, and she with it. Her ears filled with a tremendous crashing sound. Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment. When they opened, the air was a cloud of masonry dust. She gasped it in and choked. When her breath returned, there was a ringing in her ears. Then silence. Then people around her coughing. Then yelling.
She looked around for her boyfriend. His face emerged from the dust. She could make out his eyes, and they were wide with terror — “like a crazy person’s eyes,” she thought.
“Everybody get upstairs!”
Her cat was crouched on the floor, its claws digging at the concrete. Her mother pried him up and put him under her arm before the three of them rushed toward the stairwell. They could see only dust and the shapes of moving bodies, but they had gone this way so many times in the last 10 days, since they fled the siege of Mariupol to shelter in the basement of the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theater, that they could have found the stairs with their eyes closed.
The stairwell was a welter of whitened people. Some sat, bleeding, dazed, while others struggled to climb. Getting up the stairs felt to Elyzaveta “like forever.” A man on the landing above was screaming. Him she understood at once.
“There is no more theater!”
She stumbled out into the freezing air on the building’s eastern side. Where the roof above the main auditorium had been, there was now a yawning opening to the sky. Minutes earlier, there had been a field kitchen here. A crowd had been around the cooking fires, preparing the midday soup. Elyzaveta’s mother had just been fetching water. Now the edifice was collapsed, and there was a smoking hill of rubble where the kitchen had been. Children stood before it, wailing.
Elyzaveta refused to look at them. She refused to look anywhere, knowing that, if she did, she would pass out: “I was in a stupor, frozen.” She wanted to cover her ears with her hands and block out their wails but realized she was holding the cat. Her boyfriend was next to her; her mother was not.
No one knows how many Ukrainians were crushed beneath the rubble, burned, killed by shrapnel or blast waves or asphyxiated in and around the theater. The estimates of dead I heard from survivors ranged from 60 to 200, but The Associated Press found that it could be up to 600. With Mariupol in Russian hands, it’s unlikely that a real accounting of the dead, or for that matter any on-the-ground investigation of the bombing, will take place.
Later, Elyzaveta asked her mother where she had disappeared to. Reluctantly, her mother told her: When she got outside, following Elyzaveta, she had seen a woman’s bloodied face in the rubble. The woman was pinned under a slab of limestone. Elyzaveta’s mother went to the woman. She and a boy tried to pry the slab off her. It was too heavy. She had to go.
She looked into the pinned woman’s petrified eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and ran off.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its seventh month and the world’s interest in it inevitably diminishes, the destruction of the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theater demands our attention. Before it was bombed, the theater was home to the largest sanctuary in Mariupol for residents fleeing the Russian siege. In the roughly three weeks that this improvised, citizen-led shelter existed, its inhabitants worked together to keep one another alive. As news of what was happening there spread across Ukraine, it became a national symbol of hope and resistance. When it was destroyed, it became the site of the single most lethal act of violence against Ukrainian civilians since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.