Russian forces killed twice as many people as originally thought in its March 16 bombing of a theater that served as a shelter in Ukraine’s besieged port city of Mariupol.
That’s according to an extensive investigation by the Associated Press out Wednesday, which puts the real death toll of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater bombing at about 600. Ukrainian authorities had initially said an estimated 300 people were killed.
The investigation also debunks Moscow’s earlier claims that the theater had been serving as a Ukrainian military base at the time of the airstrike, with survivors confirming they never saw any Ukrainian soldiers on the premises.
Russian forces lobbed bombs on the building despite the word “children” being painted in huge, white letters on the pavement outside, large enough to be visible even by satellite.
Using testimony from 23 survivors, rescuers, and others familiar with the theater, as well as photos, video, and floor plans, the AP investigation paints a devastating picture of how many lives were lost in the bombing.
More than 1,000 civilians were inside the premises at the time, among them pregnant women and families with young children, many of them trying to evacuate the city. Survivors said they didn’t see any more than about 200 people escape—with the rest of them buried in the wreckage.
“All the people are still under the rubble, because the rubble is still there—no one dug them up. This is one big mass grave,” a survivor named Oksana Syomina told the AP as she recalled the horror of seeing bloodied bodies.
The disturbing new details about the theater bombing—one of the most heinous of Russia’s alleged war crimes since the invasion began on Feb. 24—come as Ukrainian authorities warn the decimated city may be the site of even more atrocities yet to be discovered.
Some of the most gut-wrenching glimpses inside the battered city have come from first-hand accounts of those who made it out. Ukrainian photographer Yevgeny Sosnovsky shared photos on Facebook this week of a diary kept by an 8-year-old boy who was trapped in the city during Russia’s siege.
In heartbreaking detail, the diary pages reveal what the war looked like through the eyes of a child.
“I slept well, woke up, smiled, got up and read up to the 25th page. Also my grandfather died, I have a wound on my back, torn out skin, my sister has a head wound, and mama has flesh torn out of her arm and a hole in her leg,” the boy wrote, titling the diary entry “ War.”
On another page, the boy notes that he’s preparing to celebrate his birthday, alongside a doodle of a stick figure family wearing party hats and standing next to a big cake. On the next page, the boy drew pictures of dead bodies in the street, burning buildings, tanks, and men holding rifles.
“Two of my dogs died, and grandmother Galya, and my beloved city of Mariupol all throughout this time starting on the 24th,” he wrote.
The grim snapshot of what remains of Mariupol after weeks of Russian bombardment comes as Russia reportedly prepares to hold a parade in the city to mark Victory Day on May 9, when the country celebrates the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. (President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to use the holiday this year to claim that Russian forces defeated “Nazis” in Ukraine with his “ special military operation.”) Local Russian forces have reportedly been ordered to clear debris and dead bodies from the streets to help sell the Kremlin narrative that the city has been “liberated.”
Meanwhile, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the city came under intense fire by Russian troops Wednesday. Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steel plant, along with some civilians, continue to fight in the hopes of fending off a full-blown Russian takeover of the city, most of which has been wiped off the face of the earth.