People started miraculously staggering out of a makeshift bomb shelter Thursday morning under a theater in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where hundreds of Ukrainian citizens had been sheltering when it was reportedly struck by Russian forces on Wednesday.
The spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted the good news Thursday morning. “The bomb shelter in Mariupol Drama Theatre has survived the brutal Russian missile,” Iuliia Mendel posted Thursday. “At least, majority stayed alive after bombing. People are getting out from the rubble.”
The shocking attack drew global scorn overnight after satellite images captured just two days before the assault showed a massive sign on the ground near the church that reads “CHILDREN” in Russian, Reuters reported. On Tuesday, some 20,000 Ukrainian refugees were evacuated from the city, but it’s unclear whether that included any of the people who were reportedly inside the theater when it was bombed. Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC between 1,000 and 1,200 mostly women, children and elderly people had taken shelter there under increasingly dire conditions.
“The Russian military attacked #Mariupol's Drama Theater, where a large number of citizens were hiding!” the official account of the Ukrainian parliament said in a statement on Twitter about the attack. “It is unknown how many people died under the rubble. Now there are fierce battles. No one can reach the blockages, we don’t know if there are any survivors.”
Early Thursday morning, the mayor of Mariupol said rescuers were hindered from reaching the structure by constant Russian shelling, but then a short time later, those inside the shelter started digging out. It is still unclear how many—if any—of those inside the makeshift bomb shelter were injured or died.
The attack comes after weeks of bloodshed and utter destruction in the strategic besieged port city of Mariupol, with Russian forces launching relentless attacks on hospitals, homes, and other non-military targets that have so far killed some 2,500 civilians in the city, many of whom have been dumped in hastily dug mass graves. More than 350,000 residents remain essentially trapped in the city as it faces almost daily bombardment from Vladimir Putin’s army.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied that Russian troops had attacked the theater and accused the far-right Ukrainian militia Azov Battalion of staging the bombing.
Videos circulating on social media showed part of the theater building in ruin, with a thick cloud of smoke billowing from the site of the wreckage late Wednesday.
The theater attack is only the latest incident to cast doubt on official claims from the Kremlin that it has not been targeting civilians since the onset of the war last month.
“This is a theater in which Russian language performances were held, it is a sanctuary in which the residents of Mariupol were rescued from the continuous shelling,” Mariupol politician Sergiy Taruta said in a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday. “The world is obliged to hear the screams, moaning voices of [the people of Mariupol], who were buried.”
Serhiy Orlov, Mariupol’s deputy mayor, told the BBC on Wednesday that some 1,000 to 1,200 had been sheltering in the building before the attack took place.
The building, which is located in the heart of the city, is now “now fully ruined,” according to Ukrainian Minister of Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who added in a statement about the attack that the Russians “could not have not known this was a civilian shelter.”
The Mariupol city council accused Russian forces of “purposefully and cynically” destroying the theater, adding that a “plane dropped a bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding.”