Dmitry Yurin was at home on 16 March when a Russian bomb struck Mariupol’s drama theatre. His flat in Prospect Mira was a couple of hundred metres away, across a square with a fountain. The theatre had become a capacious air raid shelter. Hundreds of women and children were inside.
“It was terrible, a massive blast, an enormous explosion. I heard cries and screams,” Yurin said. “I saw bodies and bits of bodies. I pulled one woman out, then a girl, and then a boy. All were hurt. The boy’s legs didn’t move. He was screaming. My hands were shaking. I was covered in blood.”
Nearby a woman lay motionless on the ground. Family members were desperately attempting to resuscitate her, pressing on her chest. “They were trying to bring her back. There was a child standing next to her, saying: ‘Mum, don’t sleep.’ The woman was dead.”
The exact number of people who perished in the Russian air strike is still unknown. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, says 300 people were killed. Witnesses including Yurin confirm there were dozens of bodies. They say continuous Russian shelling made rescue work dangerous.
Yurin said he went back to the garage where he had been sheltering with his mother, Nadezhda, lit a cigarette and swallowed some tablets. He decided he had to get out of Mariupol, which for two gruesome weeks Russian forces had attacked and besieged. The city was cut off from all directions.
He came up with an extraordinary plan. Yurin decided he would swim to safety.
A keen fisherman, he had spent hours on the Sea of Azov with his father catching a local mullet known as pelengas. He found his fishing waders, previously used for digging up worms. He took two rubbish bags to tie around his socks, some string, and four 5-litre plastic bottles, for use as buoyancy aids.
Dressed in this improvised costume, Yurin said, he set off on foot towards the beach. It was early evening. He passed ruined blocks of flats. “There were a few people out looking for water. Someone asked me for cigarettes. Otherwise the city was deserted. I took a path I knew to the seafront. It was cold.”
Yurin said he waded along the sand and then plunged in. He swam out 150 metres, parallel to the shore, and started heading west. The water was freezing. “My teeth were chattering. I hid behind one of the bottles so no-one could see me. Sometimes I rested on top of the float.”
He swam for two and a half hours. The 2.5-mile route took him past the Russian position at Rybatske and to the village of Melekine, which before the war was a beach resort. He staggered out. He found an elderly couple who took him in, gave him a shot of vodka and a bowl of borsch.
The village was under Russian control. With the help of a neighbour, Yurin managed to board a minivan heading for the port of Berdyansk, also occupied by Russian forces. He said the Russian soldiers on the checkpoint ignored him. “They were 17 or 18 years old,” he recalled. From Berdyansk he was able to cross into Ukraine-administered territory.
Diana Berg, a Mariupol resident who escaped the city, said a family had taken a similar route to Yurin’s. “Since the beach was mined they had to walk in cold water for kilometres,” she posted on Facebook. Leaving by foot through Russian positions was now impossible. “They don’t let anyone in or out,” she wrote.
She added: “The city is still blocked. Every day the Russians keep ruining it with all possible weapons – air strikes, rockets, artillery, mines, tanks. Only on Wednesday there were 118 air bombs. We thought the city was destroyed already. But now it is being even more heavily ruined.”
The Ukrainian army and its allied Azov battalion controlled a shrinking area in the centre of Mariupol, she said. “Civilians are trying to survive this hell. This terror is beyond imagination,” she wrote, calling for a ceasefire and evacuation organised by the international community.
The government in Kyiv has accused Moscow of kidnapping thousands of Mariupol residents, including children. They were forcibly taken from city hospital number four to Russia via neighbouring pro-Russian separatist controlled areas. Video on Thursday appeared to show soldiers deporting doctors and patients at gunpoint from a city hospital.
The Mariupol city council says separatists are now trundling through the ruins in a white van, collecting bodies lying on the streets. These are being burned in a mobile crematorium. The aim, it says, is to avoid the embarrassing photos that came out of Bucha, north-west of Kyiv, showing executed and bound civilians.
Another Mariupol resident, Vika Dubovitskaya, said she managed to flee with her two children – Artyom, six, and Nastiya, two – in a private car. They had been sheltering in the drama theatre when the building was obliterated. “It was quiet. Then there was an explosion. We had to run,” she said.
“I put my daughter on my shoulders and grabbed my son’s hand. He told me: ‘I’m tired of running’. The blast threw me against the wall. I hurt one side of my face but didn’t notice. It was the adrenalin. My only thought was to get the kids out.”
Speaking from the western city of Lviv, Dubovitskaya said 1,500 people had been living inside the theatre. She said she arrived on 5 March after gas, heat, water and power inside the city were all cut off. One of the actors, Damir Sukhov, showed her a place to say on the first floor.
“We were living in the corridor between classical columns. There were thick walls,” she said. Other women and children were already sleeping in the auditorium, as well as in the makeup room and in two underground cellars. The stage area was warmer but more vulnerable, she said.
For the first three days there was nothing to eat. “You feel guilty when you can’t feed your kids,” she said. Ukrainian soldiers then brought food including frozen fish, which was cooked outside the building on a wood fire. Only children were allowed to eat. Volunteers looted a shop and brought warm clothes, she said.
Dubovitskaya said the Russians were aware the theatre was full of women and children. They had taken over the surrounding districts and had moved surreptitiously one night into a branch of the Pumb bank, 250 metres away. Ukraine’s armed forces had painted the word “children” in giant letters outside the theatre.
Later she moved to the second floor and was in the projector room when the bomb fell. It was unclear how many people died or what happened to Sukhov, the actor, who had been organising the relief effort. She was reunited on 23 March with her husband, Dmitry, who had returned from Poland to look for her and found her in a red cross camp.
“There were no communications in the city. I left my phone and rucksack behind when we ran out the theatre,” she said. “Dima [Dmitry] came to the school outside Mariupol where we were living. He saw our son first but didn’t recognise him because he had lost so much weight.” The family are now camping in a basement in Lviv with 25 other refugees.
Yurin, meanwhile, said his mother, who worked as a cleaner in the offices of Mariupol’s Pryazovia Worker newspaper, managed to escape a few days after his epic Azov sea swim. She was now staying with her sister in Russian-occupied Berdyansk.
“What the Russians did to the theatre was an act of terror,” he said. “They knew there were peaceful people inside. They killed hundreds. It was the same story when they bombed the maternity hospital.” “He continued: “I’m 31, of fighting age. If they had got hold of me I would have been tortured and taken prisoner.”
He said: “Thank God I knew the shoreline around Mariupol so well. That saved me.”