Mariupol Theater survivor describes search for daughter

victoria Dubovitskiy only sought refuge in the Donetsk Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol because her daughter Anastasia fell ill. After weeks of siege, bombardment and shelling by Russian troops, the southeastern Ukrainian city was without electricity.

“I didn’t even ask myself if it was safe or not,” she tells TIME. “I only came to protect the children.”

In freezing temperatures, Dubovitskiy took daughter Anastasia, 2, and son Armet, 6, there on March 5 to warm up — along with hundreds of other residents. To alert Russian troops that the theater was being used to house families, the word “CHILDREN” was painted outside in white letters large enough to be seen from the air.

Dubovitskiy recalls that March 16 was remarkably calm – with no shells and only a few planes overhead. Her family originally took shelter on the ground floor of the theater, but because Anastasia was ill – a doctor at the theater told her it was pneumonia – they were given a room on the second floor.

Then suddenly an explosion hit the theater. “There was an explosion, a wave,” says Dubovitskiy. The blast threw her across her room and collapsed a wall on Anastasia’s bed: “I touched the bed she was sleeping in and I couldn’t find her,” she says. “There was only rubble”

For minutes she groped around in the darkness. Finally, she heard Anastasia shout over the screams of other victims, “Mom! Mamuchka!” She rummaged in the rubble with her hands and finally felt her daughter’s jacket and pulled it out.

Dubovitskiy says Anastasia was only saved because blankets were piled next to her, covering her and helping protect her from the rubble.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 500 civilians, including women and children, were inside the theater, including in the basement, when it was attacked. The Ukrainian government blamed Russia for the attack, and local officials in Mariupol said 300 people died after the theater was reduced to rubble – although details have not been independently confirmed

Dubovitskiy and her family are lucky. Authorities say only 130 people were rescued from the theater. After the attack, the family was able to flee to relatively safe western Ukraine. However, the effects of the attack are lasting, especially for little Anastasia, who hasn’t left her mother’s side.

“I couldn’t leave her at arm’s length. She wanted to stay in my hands,” says Dubovitskiy. “She was crying, she was screaming and she wasn’t sleeping.”

More must-read stories from TIME

write to Francesca Trianni at Mariupol Theater survivor describes search for daughter

Justin Scacco

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