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Hundreds of tiny shoes: Protest spotlights child death toll in Ukraine’s Mariupol

Children's coveralls and footwear are placed alongside candles during a demonstration on April 10, 2022, in Helsinki organized by the Ukrainian Association in Finland in the memory of children killed in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. (Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/Reuters)
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Rows of small shoes were placed alongside candles in Helsinki during a protest Sunday to draw attention to the children killed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, specifically in the battered port city of Mariupol.

There were shiny black boots. Tiny, cozy slippers. Pink and purple sneakers.

In total, there were 210 pairs. They symbolized the total number of young lives Ukrainian officials said were lost in southeastern city of Mariupol, including when the Drama Theater — where hundreds of civilians were sheltering — was hit on March 16.

The humanitarian crisis is growing in Mariupol, where at least 5,000 residents have died in the month since Russian forces laid siege to it, its mayor said last week on Telegram, citing preliminary estimates. Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who also cited a hospital that had been bombed, condemned the “deliberate destruction of the civilian population of Mariupol” and estimated that 90 percent of the city’s infrastructure had been wiped out. The Washington Post was unable to confirm those tallies.

Witnesses told The Washington Post at the time that a white flag had been tied to the top of the drama theater to let Russian troops know children were inside. The word “children” was also written in large white letters in Russian in front of and behind the theater, satellite images revealed. The building, when struck, was reduced to rubble.

At Sunday’s protest — organized by the Ukrainian Association in Finland, which was founded in 1997 to represent Ukrainians residing in the country — the shoes were laid outside the Finnish National Theater. The purpose was to draw attention to what the group called “Russian war crimes."

Organizers said they had written the world “children” on either side of the national theater — as those at the Mariupol Drama Theater had done.

A set of child-size yellow coveralls was also placed at the scene of the protest, sprawled facedown on the ground, a soft toy next to it.

“The aim of the event is to draw public attention to inhumane crimes committed by Russian army against the Ukrainian people,” the organization wrote on Facebook as it called on people to join the event.

Of the estimated 100,000 civilians remaining in the city, most are without food, water or adequate heating. Access to the Internet is also scarce.

Its strategic position on the Sea of Azov, between pro-Russian areas of the Donbas and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, has made it a key target for Moscow’s military offensive.

Inside the terror at Mariupol’s bombed theater: ‘I heard screams constantly’

The Red Cross warned recently that a path out of the besieged city appeared to have land mines and that those attempting to flee faced a “long, difficult journey.”

Pascal Hundt of the International Committee of the Red Cross told Sky News on Sunday that “it was really hell” in the city.

Boychenko, the Mariupol mayor, said last week that hospitals had come under attack during the bombardment and that 50 people had burned to death inside one of the city’s health-care facilities.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Julian Duplain in London contributed to this report.