The siege of Mariupol is proving to be one of the deadliest episodes in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the lack of definitive data on casualties proving to be a “big black hole” in terms of accessing corroborated information. The bombardment of Mariupol began on 24 February 2022, and the shelling and strikes have been more or less consistent since. The population has been trapped, and isolated from aid and supplies.
During the first three weeks of the siege, hundreds of people were using a grand, columned theatre in the centre of Mariupol as a shelter. The building had been clearly marked as a civilian shelter, with the word ‘children’ reportedly written, in giant Russian letters, on the ground outside. Satellite images have confirmed this.
On 16 March 2022, a Russian airstrike hit the theatre, causing the roof and some of the exterior walls to collapse inwards. Communications were disrupted and there were conflicting reports on survivors. For many days, authorities were unable to provide a casualty count, but on 25 March they confirmed, from witness reports, that around 300 people had been killed. This made the airstrike the deadliest attack since the beginning of the invasion.
However, since then, Associated Press (AP) have come forward with revised evidence, suggesting that the death count is closer to 600. AP based their claims on the accounts of 23 witnesses, floor plans, photos and videos taken on the day of the airstrike, and a 3D model of the building. Based on witness evidence and material evidence, AP also refutes Russia’s claim that the theatre was struck by Ukrainian forces, or that it served as a Ukrainian military base.
The strike on Mariupol’s theatre remains the single deadliest attack against civilians during Russia’s war on Ukraine, and is a crucial link in the pattern of war crimes that Ukrainian officials continue to track, in the hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Russia continues to deny targeting civilians. However, since the start of the invasion, AOAV has recorded 118 incidents of explosive violence in residential neighbourhoods attributed to Russia, as well as 44 incidents in locations in which the explosion would impact multiple urban areas. Villages have been attacked a reported 47 times. Eight incidents perpetrated by Russia have been recorded on armed bases, five on roads, and one on agricultural lands. Consequently, the majority of recorded incidents of explosive violence attributed to Russia have taken place in civilian zones.
Since AP came forward with their evidence suggesting at least 600 rather than 300 people were killed in the Russian strike on Mariupol’s theatre, AOAV has recorded the majority of casualties in Ukraine in civilian areas.
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