'I Saw My Mother Lying There, Burning': 15-Year-Old Boy Tries To Cope After Effort To Escape Russian Invasion

LVIV, Ukraine -- For the past two weeks, Andriy, a 15-year-old from Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, has been spending a lot more time playing the guitar.

It is a way to cope with his pain, both physical and emotional.

The physical pain is visible to all. Andriy has a metal ring around his fractured left leg and a cast on his right one. The emotional pain comes through when he recalls trying to escape from a village that Russian soldiers had captured just outside Chernihiv.

The car he was riding in with his mother, cousin, and three other people hit a land mine as they made their way back to the city. Crawling in pain on the road as he tried to come to his senses, Andriy's eyes locked onto a scene that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

"I saw my mother lying and burning. She was still alive while she was burning. Her leg was twitching," he said from his hospital bed in the western city of Lviv, where he was evacuated days later by his father.

Countless families have been torn apart since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, bombarding roads, schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings in addition to military targets. Thousands of civilians have been killed, though exact figures are unknown.

Chernihiv, a city of 280,000 on the banks of the Desna River near the borders with Belarus and Russia, has been one of the cities hardest hit by bombs, shells, and rockets. It lies on a main route to Kyiv, about 125 kilometers to the southwest, and in the path of Russian forces that have poured over the border.


'The War Has Started'

On the morning of February 24, Andriy said, his mother woke him up in their apartment in Chernihiv with the words, "The war has started." They could hear sirens and explosions.

His father, Anatoliy, who joined the city's defense forces, drove his wife, son, and a nephew to their dacha, or summer home, in Ivanivka, a village some 15 kilometers south of the city.

Anatoliy hoped they would be safer there than in Chernihiv. However, Russian forces rolled into Ivanivka less than two weeks later as they attempted to encircle the city.

Andriy recalled a shell crashing into the courtyard, shattering the dacha's windows. He, his mother, and cousin hid in the basement as the fighting got closer.

Soon, a tank or an armored personnel carrier entered their property and began firing at their door before the Russian soldiers entered the house. "As soon as they found the pantry, we started shouting that we are civilians. They threatened us with a grenade [and] we climbed out," Andriy said.

The Russian soldiers took their phones and crushed them with their rifle butts, he said. That wasn't the only thing they smashed, he said.

The three spent the night at a neighbor's house because their dacha was "completely destroyed," Andriy said.

Shock And Pain

A family friend negotiated with the Russian troops in Ivanivka, who agreed to allow Andriy, his mother, cousin, and a few others to evacuate and return to Chernihiv.

A few minutes into the short ride, Andriy suddenly saw a "yellow flash" and felt "ringing in my ears" as he flew out of the car.

Their vehicle had just hit a land mine near the village of Kolychivka, killing the driver, his sister, and Andriy's mother. His cousin survived.

In shock and pain and with blood flowing from his ears, Andriy crawled off the road to reach the fence of a house, he said.

Residents of Kolychivka who heard the explosion soon came to their rescue, carrying Andriy and his cousin back to the village with the help of improvised stretchers made from bed sheets.

With medical personnel unable to reach the village due to the fighting, Ukrainian troops eventually came to get the boys and bring them to the edge of the city, where they were put into an ambulance, Andriy said.

Doctors attended to his injuries, including his fractured legs, in the basement of a hospital as explosions rang out. As there were no available beds in the crowded hospital, his father picked him up immediately after the operation and took him home, he said.

Five days later, after Andriy's condition stabilized, his father drove him to Lviv, where many people fleeing eastern and central areas have taken refuge. Others have passed through on their way to Poland and other European Union states.

Lviv is less than 500 kilometers southwest of Chernihiv, but the trip took two days on Ukraine's backed-up, risky wartime roads. Anatoliy checked his son into a local hospital, where he is expected to remain a few more weeks.

RFE/RL has been unable to independently verify the details of the account from Andriy and Anatoliy, who did not want their last name made public, but stories from other evacuees in Chernihiv as well as video, photographs, and satellite images lend support to their story.

Like many other Ukrainians who have lost a loved one in the Russian invasion, the family has been unable to bury Andriy's mother due to the war. Her body has been lying in a refrigerator at a morgue for the past three weeks.

'No Safe Way Out'

Amid heavy fighting, Russian forces have been unable to seize Kyiv or Chernihiv. On March 29, after a round of peace talks in Istanbul, Russia announced that it would sharply curtail operations near the two cities "to increase mutual trust."

But the Chernihiv region governor, Vyacheslav Chaus, said on March 30 that he saw no let-up in Russian attacks overnight, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Western officials have voiced skepticism about Moscow's motives.

Earlier this week, Chaus said that half the city's population had left since the start of the war but that attacks were coming every 10 or 15 minutes and there was "no safe way out" after Russian forces bombed a bridge on the road to Kyiv.

Chaus said some bodies may still be under the rubble of collapsed buildings. "We're still trying to collect them," he said.

Andriy said he was "just lucky" to survive. "By some magical miracle, I am alive, in a hospital where they feed me with care," he said.

He said his father told him that the deaths of his mother and others killed in the war were "the price we pay for our independence. And we are ready to pay it."

"Nothing is free," he added. "If Russia wants to be a totalitarian state and become the Soviet Union, so be it. But they won't have us."

Written by Todd Prince based on reporting by Halyna Tereshchuk of RFE/RL Ukrainian Service