Svetlana Zhivotova was crying hard as she climbed into a transport van to leave for Kyiv, and her son was glad to see it. Seventeen-year-old Ilya Zhivotov had finally gotten his mother out of the war-ravaged, Russian-occupied territories after six months of hell, and this final leg of their journey to freedom was a tremendous relief.

It had been an arduous time, especially for Svetlana. She remained behind in Mariupol when her son left in early February to join the Cadet Corps in Kharkiv for an education described on Instagram as a state boarding school with enhanced military physical training. Svetlana was alone when war broke out.

The fateful morning of Feb. 24, the day of the invasion, the students at the cadet corps were awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a call from their commander. Ilya asked him about the situation in Mariupol. In both cities the day began with shelling around the outskirts of the city. Then fighting followed the shelling. The cadets joined the Ukraine military in combat readiness for battle.

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Ilya felt it was an incomprehensible situation: Mother and son were enduring the same Russian onslaught in cities 400 kilometers (260 miles) apart. Ilya was very concerned for his mother.

“Everything disappeared very quickly in Mariupol.  Food, electricity, gas, water – there was nothing.  There were street battles. The Russian military shelled the city not just every day but probably every minute,” Ilya automatically described his mother’s situation first, and explained there were some parallels, “Kharkov was also shelled every day. There were even battles in the city. Our military fought off all the attacks.”

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The stress of the past six months shows on the faces of Svitlana Zhivotova, at left, and other refugees upon their arrival at the refugee processing center in Zaporizhzhia. (Patricia Cordell, Kyiv Post)

Ilya lived in the Kharkiv region for the next half year with the parents of a friend from the cadet corps. He explained that at the beginning of the invasion, a Russian plane dropped a bomb on a school in the nearby countryside. “It was at night. The Russians most often hit houses and schools at night. About two months ago, Iskanders (ballistic missiles) hit an electrical substation. Then, just this past August, three rockets flew from Belgorod (Russia) to hit a glass factory at 1 a.m.”

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However, life and war were more difficult for his mother during these six long months. Ilya’s mother told him that a Russian plane dropped a bomb over their house which exploded only three to five meters away.

“The Russians destroyed the house. The rocket hit the house opposite and our house was cut into fragments. They pierced the roof, walls, ceilings, all the windows flew out.” His mother had been a cook at the shopping center at Port City and now she had to cook the food they had “saved for a rainy day” on a fire created from what she could find about their home.

Svetlana left Mariupol on March 16. The family had no contact with her for about two months.  “My mother was taken to Crimea, but a month later she returned to Mariupol because it was not possible in Crimea: Ukrainians are treated like garbage there.”

She decided to return home to live in her sister’s apartment, “only the windows flew out there,” according to Ilya.

The young man kept in touch with his mother via WhatsApp and Viber:

“It was very scary for her and I was very worried. There was almost nothing in the city.  The food was very expensive and the quality could be better.  The Russian military traveled around the city.  There was no water and electricity almost (any)where. There were very long queues everywhere from (waiting for) humanitarian aid to (waiting for) the bus.

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“They slept in clothes because it was cold.  Planes were constantly flying overhead.  There were explosions every minute.  They even went to the spring for water under fire.”

“Chechens went to all the houses and ransacked them during searches, knocked down the doors.  If they found something, at least a flag or a uniform, they took the people to Novoazovsk, something like a prison (where they had to) pass the filtration.”

Ilya added, “About a month ago, the Russians were defending their position in the neighboring street with artillery. The street was simply erased. My friend with his family died there.”

Finally, Svetlana decided to find a way out. It was a difficult process. She needed documents to leave the city for Ukraine. She had to go through ‘filtering,’ the Russian euphemism for scrutiny and interrogation; get a bunch of passes, and leave behind everything she had built.

Previously It hadn’t been possible to leave. The Russians didn’t allow people to leave, or the carriers inflated prices to more than $1000 for a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Zaporizhzhia. Ilya explains that these carriers transport people for profit.

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“There are no volunteers who take them to Ukraine. There are Russian volunteers who can take them to Russia and the Russian military take money at checkpoints to allow them to pass through faster. If only mom and everyone who was on the bus then did not pay the money, they would have stood in line for several days.”

Svetlana deleted everything from the phone so they could not learn about Ilya. Since he’s a cadet, in a military uniform, they were afraid the Russians could have done anything. However, filtering wasn’t difficult for her. As Ilya understood it, the women were treated more ‘softly’ while men were checked completely.

Both Russians and Kadyrovites were standing at the checkpoint in Vasilyevka. According to Svetlana, the Kadyrovites were like animals, searching through everything, all things, any bag, but she was checked by a young Russian soldier, who did not do as much.

Finally, on Saturday, Aug. 13, his mother departed Mariupol. After six grueling months apart, Ilya reunited with his mother and his niece in Zaporizhzhia, a city receiving global attention for the violent standoff at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Russian troops seized the nuclear complex in March and may divert the power from central Europe to Russia.

Ilya and his mother were firmly determined to leave the area. Ilya made his thoughts clear: All of Europe is frightened by what is happening at the plant. He believes the occupation of the ZNPP is another fact that Russia is a terrorist country, that it is preparing provocations from within it’s complex. “Weapons and soldiers have been placed there. This is very alarming.”

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He believes there could be an accident because practice has shown that Russia doesn’t care. An expert assessment by Lana Tarapakina, advisor to the Minister of Environmental Protection, contends a catastrophe at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant would be 10 times stronger than at Chernobyl in 1986.

“We don’t want Russia. We lived well before them, but when they came, it became bad. We don’t want to be slaves like the inhabitants of Russia who can’t even say a word. We were born in Ukraine, in our own state. Why should some grandfather from the bunker think we need help? I would be better if he put things in order in his country,” he declared.

Now, though, Svetlana was happy.  One thousand to eighteen hundred refugees from occupied Ukraine were escaping Russian oppression that day and she was one. She was crying at the van for the free ride to Kyiv by Canadian humanitarian aid group H.U.G.S., because she had finally gotten out and she was finally back in Ukrainian-held territory. She was exhausted by the occupation and it had taken a toll on her health: She now has cancer. However, her son looked at her with so much love. They were together again and on the way to rejoin old friends.

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