LVIV, Ukraine — The explosion — deafening, blinding — collapsed the walls around them, and “the moments afterwards felt like an eternity, waiting to hear my child’s scream so I would know she was alive,” Viktoria Dubovitskaya said. “Maybe she will be without legs or arms, but just let her be alive.”
Ms. Dubovitskaya, interviewed last month at a shelter in Lviv, in western Ukraine, said she and her two young children were among the many civilians sheltering in Mariupol’s Drama Theater on March 16 when it was devastated by a Russian airstrike. A wall fell onto her 2-year-old daughter, Nastya, and in those horrific first moments, Ms. Dubovitskaya recalled, she did not know if the girl had survived.
Finally, she heard it: “Mama!” Nastya screamed. A mattress that had been propped up against the wall fell against her daughter, cushioning the blows. Under the shattered masonry, Nastya was alive, but the place where they had taken refuge for 11 days, along with hundreds of others, was destroyed.
The theater bombing in Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine, may have killed hundreds of people in a single strike and is one of the most prominent examples of the atrocities that Russia has inflicted in its invasion of Ukraine. Soon after that attack, President Biden labeled President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a war criminal.
Like so much of what has happened in besieged and bombarded Mariupol, information about the attack on the theater has emerged in an unsteady trickle. It is not clear how many civilians were there or how many died, and communication with the city has been all but eliminated. Mariupol’s administration says it believes about 300 people died in the theater strike. Officials said they knew of 130 survivors.
Multiple attempts to open safe corridors and evacuate Mariupol residents have been stymied, and several aid convoys have been forced to turn back. The mayor said on Thursday that he believed at least 5,000 people had been killed in attacks on the city.
Ms. Dubovitskaya, 24, said she lost her phone, with photographs from the theater, in the chaos of the bombing, and her story could not be independently verified. But the Instagram account of her husband, Dmitri Dubovitsky, features photographs of the family with geolocation tags showing they were from Mariupol. A friend of Mr. Dubovitsky’s, Maksim Glusets, said his wife had also been inside the theater and saw Ms. Dubovitskaya and her children, whom they also knew socially from Mariupol.
The New York Times interviewed Ms. Dubovitskaya after being contacted by a volunteer helping to coordinate outreach to Ukrainian and international media so that evacuees could tell their stories. The volunteer was made aware by a doctor who helps displaced people that Ms. Dubovitskaya had arrived in Lviv. Ms. Dubovitskaya said she wanted to share her account of being in the theater in Mariupol, which has also been cut off from water and electricity during the fighting, with the West and to ask nations to send more weapons to Ukraine.
As the Russian military has flattened Mariupol and tightened its cordon around the remaining Ukrainian defenders, people have fled in fits and starts, in cars and buses weaving through rubble, craters, burned-out vehicles and Russian military checkpoints.
Ms. Dubovitskaya said she and her children were on the second floor of the theater, away from the bomb’s detonation. (Her husband was in Poland, where he had been working since before the war began on Feb. 24.) The bomb hit near the stage, she said, and people who had been sheltering there, or in the basement under it, had little chance of surviving. With combat raging nearby, and follow-up strikes feared, emergency services could not immediately reach the scene.
“When we walked downstairs, we just saw dead bodies,” Ms. Dubovitskaya said. “So many bodies. The whole place was covered in blood. We knew that another strike could happen, or that Russian soldiers might come for a zachistka,” or “cleansing,” of the city.
“We just ran,” she said. Outside, they heard shelling and the burst of automatic weapons. They saw houses ablaze.
Her 6-year-old son, Artyom, saw a corpse as he stopped to take a breath.
“There is a man lying there,” he pointed out.
His mother responded with a lie. “He is just taking a nap,” she told him.
They eventually found shelter in a nearby school. On March 23, a week after the theater strike, they finally left the city, heading in the only direction they believed was safe: territory held by Russian troops, a town known as Nikolske but that locals refer to as Volodarske, 14 miles northwest of Mariupol.
In the meantime, Mr. Dubovitsky initiated a frantic search for his wife and children. He knew they had been sheltering inside the theater, and he crossed back into Ukraine from Poland to look for them.
“‘Even if I only find them as corpses, at least they will be with me,’” his wife said of his mentality at that time.
In an interview, Mr. Dubovitsky, who was staying in the same Lviv shelter with his wife, described his search. He said he arrived on the west side of Mariupol with volunteers who had come to help in the city, entering near the decimated Port City Mall and walking the rest of the way.
He had found out from a friend that his wife and children were alive and sheltering in the school near the theater, but he arrived there after they left. Someone told him they had gone to Volodarske, an account confirmed by his friend Mr. Glusets, whose wife had been sheltering with Ms. Dubovitskaya at the theater.
In Volodarske, his search began at another school turned shelter. He scanned the first floor for familiar faces, then he checked several classrooms on the second floor.
In the last room, he despaired — he had not recognized anyone. Then, a child in a familiar coat caught his eye. It was his son, who had changed drastically during the month they had been apart.
“I didn’t recognize him right away,” Mr. Dubovitsky said. “He used to have a bit of a tummy. But now he had lost so much weight his ribs were sticking out of his spine.”
The month her son spent in wartime Mariupol had affected him profoundly, Ms. Dubovitskaya said. “He probably knows at an adult level what war is,” she said. “He knows exactly what to do if there is an explosion, how to hide and what kind of hiding place to find. He knows everything.”
But he has been traumatized by what has happened around him — suffering that became evident days before the theater bombing.
“He fell asleep at lunch, and when he woke up, he did not know where he was, who I was or who my friend was,” she said. “I immediately took him to the doctor in my arms. This child does not sit in arms — he never sits at all — and then he allowed me to take him and carry him. And I try to talk to him, and he doesn’t recognize me. He calls out for his mother, and he doesn’t understand that I am his mother.”
Once he returned to himself 20 minutes later, she said, he told her, “I just want to live.”
Ms. Dubovitskaya said the episode brought home how much of his childhood had been taken from him. “He is not asking for toys or even for food,” she said. “He just wants to live.”
It was another visit to a doctor that may have saved the family’s lives.
Staying in the crowded, freezing theater, her daughter developed pneumonia, Ms. Dubovitskaya said. So she took her children to a makeshift clinic on the second floor, where they were allotted a place to stay. That took them away from the bomb’s point of impact.
When her daughter screamed, “Mama!” after the wall fell on her, Ms. Dubovitskaya said, happiness and relief rushed through her. “I began to grope around in the rubble,” she said. “I felt some kind of fabric, and just pulled and pulled. She was all white, except for her face, because she covered her face with a blanket and fell into it.”
“It probably saved her,” Ms. Dubovitskaya, “because if a stone had hit her head, it would be almost impossible for a 2-year-old child to survive.”