The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

City officials describe destruction amid rescue efforts after Mariupol theater bombing

A woman stands near a block of flats that was destroyed during conflict in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
8 min

LONDON — Hampered by rubble and under continued shelling, Ukrainians on Thursday dug through the wreckage of a Mariupol theater that officials say was decimated by a Russian strike a day earlier, with uncertain fates for hundreds of civilians believed to have been sheltering in a basement bunker.

Accounts emerged of survivors, though information was scarce because of the siege conditions in Mariupol, the strategic southern port city that has faced intense Russian attacks and has been largely cut off from the outside world for weeks.

“We live in frightening times that are called war,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said. “We want to close our eyes and forget, like a bad dream, everything that is happening to us now, but we open them and see war again, we see the devastation, we see all this horror.”

Ukrainians dug through the wreckage of heavily damaged apartment buildings on March 17 to collect their possessions in the besieged port city of Mariupol. (Video: Reuters)

The high-stakes rescue effort in Mariupol was a microcosm of the steadily worsening conditions for Ukrainian civilians caught in the open-ended war Russia launched last month. Airstrikes continued Thursday in the capital of Kyiv and other cities, while diplomats voiced lukewarm optimism for peace talks.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that the United States believes Russia may be preparing to deploy a campaign of terror in Ukraine, including chemical weapons attacks, mercenary deployments and systematic kidnappings of local officials, forecasting an even grimmer outlook for the conflict that has already inflicted immeasurable damage.

A U.S. citizen was killed in the northern city of Chernihiv, the State Department confirmed Thursday. The man’s sister identified him in a Facebook post as Jim Hill of Diggs, Idaho, and said he was “waiting in a bread line with several other people when they were gunned down by Russian military” snipers. On his own Facebook page, Hill identified himself as a lecturer at universities in Kyiv and Warsaw, and indicated he was in Chernihiv to help his partner with medical treatment.

Blinken acknowledged the death but did not release further details, and the total number of people killed in the attack was still unclear late Thursday, local authorities said. Morgues in the city received the bodies of at least 53 civilians since the strike, a local official said.

Videos posted to Telegram on March 16 and verified by The Washington Post show damage to Mariupol's Drama Theater. (Video: Мариуполь Сейчас Админ via Telegram)

Ukrainian officials said Russian artillery on Thursday hit the town of Merefa, in the outskirts of Kharkiv, killing 23 people and leaving 26 injured. Videos posted online Thursday and verified by The Washington Post showed extensive damage to a school. Two police officers also were killed in separate attacks near the Ukrainian capital when Russian forces fired on evacuation convoys, Ukrainian officials said Thursday.

Amid the fresh scenes of death and destruction, U.S. officials took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom President Biden had called a day earlier a “war criminal” for what his forces have done in Ukraine.

Blinken said he agreed with Biden’s assessment, though he characterized his view as an “opinion” that would require documentation and other legal findings. “Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime,” Blinken told reporters at the State Department. “After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”

In a virtual meeting with the Irish prime minister Thursday, Biden doubled down on his criticisms of Russia, decrying the “brutality” of the Russian invasion and saying that he considered the war “inhumane.” Biden said later, “Now you have Ireland and Great Britain” standing “together against a murderous dictator, a pure thug, whom is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.”

At the annual Friends of Ireland Lunch on March 17, President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “murderous dictator” and “pure thug.” (Video: Reuters)

What are war crimes and is Russia committing them in Ukraine?

According to the latest United Nations casualty figures, 780 civilians have been killed in the conflict, though human rights agencies say the civilian death toll is likely much higher. The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting Thursday to address the needs of more than 3 million people, roughly half of them children, who have fled Ukraine since the invasion.

In Mariupol, which has been a site of acute devastation, officials decried the latest attack on the theater where refugees were sheltered. Boychenko, the mayor, said in a video posted on Telegram late Wednesday that the strike was “another tragedy, in our already mangled Mariupol, of which there is already practically nothing left.”

Images of the city posted online and verified by The Post show a ravaged landscape of cratered buildings and neighborhoods full of debris. Satellite images from before the attack showed the word “children” written in Russian in large white letters on the ground on both sides of the theater.

“We know that, unfortunately, today many were not lucky,” Boychenko said. He and other officials did not say how they were getting their latest information from the scene.

A video first posted Thursday and verified by The Post shows a woman outside the destroyed theater. The video, which has been shared widely across social media, is stamped with a watermark from the Azov Battalion, a far-right nationalist Ukrainian paramilitary and political movement that has frequently posted videos from Mariupol since the Russian siege began.

In the video, the woman says she had been cooking meals for about 800 people whom were inside of the theater and that about 100 had fled. Those whom stayed are “most likely under the rubble” she said, since many of them were hiding in a basement located underneath the stage that was directly hit by the bombing. No official figures had been released on casualties as of Thursday evening.

Serhiy Taruta, a Ukrainian politician, wrote on Facebook there was “good news” Thursday that many people had emerged alive from the theater. Oleksiy Honcharenko, a lawmaker from Odessa, said on Telegram that the bomb shelter in the theater’s basement had withstood the strike and that, despite the debris, “people are coming out of the shelter alive and well!”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied Thursday that Moscow had bombed the theater, calling it a “lie.”

The Red Cross called on warring forces to allow safe passage out of the city and let aid in. Ukrainian officials announced nine humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians, as well as plans to deliver aid to Mariupol and other places in need, a day after they said escape routes were being targeted by Russian forces.

A maternity hospital in Mariupol came under bombardment last week, and Ukrainians blamed Russian forces. Moscow has claimed, without evidence, that the hospital was emptied of patients and used as a base for Ukrainian military activity.

The World Health Organization has verified at least 43 attacks on medical targets, including assaults on patients, medical workers, health facilities and infrastructure, since the war in Ukraine began, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director general, told reporters Wednesday. More than 300 health facilities are in combat zones or areas that Russia now controls, while 600 other facilities are within about six miles of the conflict line, he said.

How has Russia used cluster and thermobaric weapons in the past?

The bleakness was briefly interrupted Thursday as Ukrainians celebrated the release of a kidnapped mayor in the Russia-controlled city of Melitopol. On Thursday, Mayor Ivan Fedorov spoke publicly for the first time since he was reportedly released as part of a prisoner swap between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

In a video posted on Telegram by an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Fedorov said he was free after six days of detention, and he thanked the people of Melitopol, who took to the streets over the weekend to protest his reported abduction by Russian forces. Footage of the mayor being taken away by Russian soldiers with what appeared to be a hood over his head spread on social media last week. “Every day in an informational vacuum, in isolation, I felt that you are fighting for me,” he said in the video.

In Russia on Thursday, a court handling the investigation into Brittney Griner’s drug charge extended the American basketball star’s detention until May 19, according to Russian state news agency Tass. With no indication whether she could be released then, the latest news means Griner, 31, will have spent more than three months in Russian custody.

Griner was arrested Feb. 17 after Russian officials said they found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo Airport outside of Moscow, an offense that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star, was returning at the time to Russia, where she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during her Phoenix Mercury offseasons.

Suliman reported from London. Allam, Westfall and Villegas reported from Washington. Annabelle Chapman in Warsaw, Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine, Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and John Hudson, Hannah Knowles, Monica Rodman, Elyse Samuels, Dave Sheinin and Lateshia Beachum in Washington contributed to this report.