The world was shocked to learn of the brutal attack that Russia perpetrated on the Mariupol Theater, one of the few buildings left standing and where about 1,300 people were sheltering. So far we know of the death of some 300 refugees who, before the bombing, helped to build a community that organized itself to survive.
The story is surprising and was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in a report that reflected how the building — which today is in ruins — sheltered for weeks a whole population that not only took refuge from the Russian attacks, but also organized itself and turned the place into an organized society.
Mariupol is a strategic point for Russia, and it is one of the most damaged cities by the bombings which in three weeks have destroyed between 80 and 90 % of its houses. Mariupol is 35 miles west of the Russian border on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, a vital piece of the land bridge that Moscow now hopes to build to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed eight years ago.
The report tells the story of Evgeniya, who was the theater’s lighting technician, and her husband, Sergey, an actor; both opened the doors to more than 1,000 refugees, even though by then the theater had no electricity, no food, no water, and only 6 toilets were operating.
At first, Evgeniya and Sergey only admitted women and children, but soon they opened the doors to everyone; people arrived there instinctively and believed that if there was an evacuation it would be from there, but the buses never arrived and as the days went by more and more people took shelter.
Spaces began to fill up; the basement, a bomb shelter, was the first to be full; then the second and third floors of the theater were packed.
“In the middle of the day, the toilets were full, in a terrible state. There was no water for flushing,” Natasha Gonchorova, the theater’s speech director, who arrived with her husband and two children, told the WSJ.
“In the disorder and uncleanliness, many children picked up coughs. A virus circulated, spreading fever. The sick called out for medicine, but there was none,” the report noted.
Faced with the situation, Evgeniya took charge of organizing the theater, settling and caring for the new arrivals; while her husband went around the city to ask for help and somehow get supplies to arrive.
“Evgeniya designated a warehouse in the theater and assigned storekeepers to supervise it. She and her group established a first-aid post in an office and found a doctor and nurse to staff it,” according to the WSJ.
Testimonies collected by the newspaper tell how they were building an organized society: they used wood from the stage so they could get firewood; volunteers carried industrial water from a nearby fountain and boiled it over an open fire in the ventilated basement; and others collected theater waste to burn in a metal drum behind the building.
While that was going on, two electricians managed to set up a generator to recharge cell phones, and a group of women cleaned the toilets.
The theater’s checkrooms were turned into collection centers to receive coats, diapers and baby food, while volunteer guards kept an eye on the line for receiving water.
To get some fresh air, only groups of 10 people could go out, and when they heard the whistling of the shells, they rushed back inside the theater.
The WSJ reports that the local police arrived at the theater with a field kitchen and after that, a team of volunteers set out to prepare meals by dividing roles: some peeled potatoes, others peeled carrots and other groups were in charge of the meat.
They became so organized that they were able to eat freshly baked bread after the men went to bombed-out bakeries to get supplies.
“A daily regimen emerged. Before first light, men kindled a new fire. By 7 a.m., water was boiling in a large cauldron for the morning tea and coffee, which was served for two hours. Some parents sent their children to hold a place in line. By 8 a.m., Evgeniya held a meeting of department heads to talk over pressing problems,” the WSJ relates.
“Volunteers served a light snack in the morning and a soup for lunch: chicken with rice, bouillabaisse or borscht. Women, children and the elderly ate first. In the evening, cooks made the last of the sausages and meats salvaged from closed or damaged stores. Police brought frozen squid, mussels, shark steaks and, one day, smoked eel.”
Family cats and dogs came to the place, and one of the refugees had a parrot with which he made the children playing all over the place laugh.
Two weeks after the siege, the theater’s population was approaching 1,500. Evgeniya could hardly imagine housing one more soul when Russia stormed a maternity hospital several blocks away on March 9. Rescue workers pulled pregnant women from the wreckage of the theater, and Evgeniya found room for them.
Attacks were increasing and Mariupol became an isolated town with no access to supplies; in the face of the situation, they were forced to ration food.
The attacks were getting closer. A missile or bomb hit a residential building 100 meters from the theater; refugees began to concentrate in the basement and under the theater stage.
And to try to persuade the Russians not to attack the place, they used paint rollers to write “CHILDREN” in large letters in the square in front of and behind the theater, so that Russian pilots could see that it was not a military target.
In the absence of help to evacuate, many decided to leave, paying up to $100 per trip to the west; the population in the theater was reduced to less than 1,000 people and thankfully they managed to save themselves.
“Just past 11 a.m. on Wednesday, March 16, as Ms. Navka slid dough into the oven, a bomb crashed through the roof of the theater,” the WSJ recounts.
“I understood that I was conscious, but I saw nothing, heard nothing, and I didn’t understand what had happened. I saw the sky above me. There were only ruins,” he said.
Bloodied, shocked and deaf, many of the survivors left Mariupol, taking their chances on the roads to the west and north. Russia denied attacking the theater and accused Ukrainian forces of having done so.
The final balance of the attack remains unknown. After a week of searching, local authorities said that more than 300 people had died.