Victoria Dubovitskiy was forced to flee Mariupol’s Donetsk Regional Drama Theater after her daughter Anastasia became ill. The city of southeast Ukraine was left without power after several weeks of Russian soldiers’ bombardment and bombing.
“I didn’t even ask myself if it was safe or not,” she tells TIME. “I just came to protect the kids.”
Dubovitskiy brought Anastasia (2 years old) and Armet (6 years), to warm up in the freezing temperatures. 5—alongside 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 big enough to be seen from the air.
Dubovitskiy reminisces about Mar. 16 was remarkably quiet—with no shelling, 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.
The theater was rocked by a sudden blast. “There was an explosion, a wave,” says Dubovitskiy. The blast knocked her across their room, and collapsed a wall onto Anastasia’s bed: “I touched the bed where she was sleeping, and I could not find her,” she says. “There was only rubble.”
For minutes, she groped in darkness. Finally, over the shouts of other victims, she heard Anastasia call out, “Mama! Mamouchka!” She searched the rubble with her hands and finally felt her daughter’s jacket and pulled her out.
Dubovitskiy states that Anastasia’s survival was possible because blankets were laid next to it, covering her and protecting her from the rubble.
Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 500 civilians were inside the theater when it was attacked. This includes children and women. The Ukrainian government blamed Russia for the attack, and local officials in Mariupol say 300 people died after the theater was reduced to rubble—though details have not been independently confirmed
Dubovitskiy is and her family are very lucky. According to authorities, only 130 people were saved from the theatre. Following the attack, Anastasia’s family was able evacuate to relative safety in western Ukraine. The effects of the attack, however, are lasting, especially on little Anastasia, who has not left her mother’s side.
“I could not leave her at an arm’s length distance. She wanted to stay in my hands,” Dubovitskiy says. “She cried, she shouted and she did not sleep.”
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