Victoria Dubovitskaya only took shelter at the Donetsk Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol because her daughter Anastasia got sick. After weeks of siege, bombing, and shelling by Russian troops, the southeast Ukrainian city had no electricity.
“I didn’t even ask myself if it was safe or not,” she tells TIME. “I just came to protect the kids.”
With freezing cold temperatures, Dubovitskaya took daughter Anastasia, 2, and son Artem, 6, there to be warm on Mar. 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.
Dubovitskaya remembers that 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.
Then, suddenly, a blast hit the theater. “There was an explosion, a wave,” says Dubovitskaya. 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.”
She groped in the darkness for minutes. 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.
Dubovitskaya says Anastasia was only saved because of blankets that were piled next to her, which covered her and helped protect her from the rubble.
At least 500 civilians, including women and children, were in the theater, including in the basement, when it was attacked, according to Human Rights Watch. 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
Dubovitskaya and her family are lucky. Authorities say just 130 people were rescued from the theater. After the attack, the family was able to evacuate to the relative safety of 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,” Dubovitskaya says. “She cried, she shouted and she did not sleep.”
Correction, April 4:
The original version of this video and story misstated Victoria Dubovitskaya’s last name. It is Dubovitskaya, not Dubovitskiy.
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