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‘We’re not okay’: South African students stranded in Ukrainian city while Russian invasion unfolds

‘We’re not okay’: South African students stranded in Ukrainian city while Russian invasion unfolds
Tanks block a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 24 February 2022. The town, which is close to the Russian border, woke to the sound of bombs on Thursday morning, according to Kurhula Mushwana, a South African medical student studying in the area. (Photo: Supplied / Kurhula Mushwana)

South African students in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, woke to the sound of falling bombs on Thursday. They are stranded, with the Russian invasion of the country bringing air travel and public transport in the country to a halt. While the South African embassy is attempting to arrange visas to other countries for the students, transport out of their increasingly volatile areas remains a problem.

‘We literally woke up to the bomb sounds, we could hear them from our apartment — that’s what woke us up. We’re 30 minutes away from the borderline where these attacks are happening. We don’t feel safe at all.”

These were among the first words that South African medical student Kurhula Mushwana spoke when Daily Maverick contacted her on Thursday. Mushwana, with fellow medical students Charmaine Mnisi and Vutlhari Mtonga, lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine, not far from the Russian border.

No aeroplanes are travelling in and out of Ukraine, said Mushwana, nor are there trains to transport them to cities in safer areas.

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Militias gather outside the city hall prior to deploying in defensive positions on 24 February 24 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo: Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

“We’re not okay,” emphasised Mushwana. “We really feel like we’re stuck, and we really, we just want someone to hear us so that the government or someone like that can try and help us at this point.”

The city had been quite calm in the lead-up to the invasion, said Mtonga. While there were concerns about the Russian troops massing on the border, people were trying to live their lives as normally as possible. Waking up to the sound of bombs and missiles landing nearby was a shock.

“The thing is, there are explosions and bombs that are happening in different places around Ukraine. It’s not like we can pack our bags right now and decide to go to a particular area,” said Mtonga. 

“In every single stop that we must go through, especially within the major city, Kyiv, there’s also bombings that are happening there. So, it’s almost like we don’t know where we’re supposed to go at this point.”

Embassy involvement

The South African ambassador to Ukraine, Andre Groenewald, has been in contact with the students, asking for their passport details to arrange Polish visas for them.

A register of students was initially developed during the Covid-19 pandemic to allow the embassy to evacuate and assist South Africans during this crisis, said Groenewald. With the situation “heating up” in Ukraine, this system is being revived.

“We have had some discussions with the Polish ambassador in Ukraine and he agreed to provide — if we provide the names, and the passport numbers, as well as the post that [the students] are intending to cross — that they are going to share that with their border guards or the border personnel, then we will be able to get them across the border.”  

Groenewald said he had been in discussions with the Romanian ambassador to arrange for students to apply for visas at Romanian border posts.

However, Mnisi pointed out that even if they receive Polish visas, she and her fellow students do not have the means to reach the border, or even leave Kharkiv.

“It’s a form of assistance, but it’s not assisting… because what’s the point of getting a visa if you can’t even get there?” she questioned.

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Residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine, queue outside shops to buy food in the wake of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. (Photo: Supplied / Kurhula Mushwana)

Groenewald acknowledged the transport difficulties. Many trains and public service buses have halted out of safety concerns, a situation he described as “complicated”. At this stage, however, the embassy is not providing transport assistance.

“I’m hoping that there might be a sort of a window of opportunity where some of the transport will work again,” he said. “It’s difficult to say how this thing will evolve, but we are hoping that at some stage at least, there will be some kind of opening for people to actually come out of really big conflict areas if they are still stuck in those.”

In the meantime, embassy workers have shared their contact numbers with South Africans in Ukraine and continue to update them with information via the embassy’s Facebook page, said Groenewald. 

While one of the embassy officials has returned home due to the stress the situation was causing his children, Groenewald and another official remain, along with the locally recruited personnel.

“We will do whatever it takes, everything that is in our power or within our means, we will do for the South Africans and the other colleagues and Africans that are here, that don’t have representation,” said Groenewald. 

The Nigerian and South African embassies have been attempting to assist Africans in Ukraine who do not have representation in the region, he said. This includes students from Eswatini and Namibia.

Struggles on the ground

While the students in Kharkiv emphasised that they appreciated the ambassador’s efforts to keep them updated, this was of little comfort to a group of people stranded in an increasingly volatile zone.

Aside from the lack of transport, banks have closed and long queues have formed outside ATMs and shops as people attempt to stock up on water, alcohol and food, among other items, said Mushwana. 

There are concerns that the people of Kharkiv may be cut off from the internet, water and electricity as the invasion progresses. The last is particularly worrying, as electricity provides protection against the cold weather in the region.

Residents seeking to leave the capital are stuck in traffic on a highway in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, 24 February 2022.  (Photo: Ethan Swope / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Ukraine gets to temperatures of -25 to -30˚ in the winter period. Right now, we are slowly transitioning into our spring period. So, it is a bit warmer, however, it’s still very cold. We need the heating system,” Mushwana explained.

University activities and classes were suspended on Thursday. The continued operation of the university up until then was part of the reason the South African students had not yet left Ukraine, said Mtonga.

“It was quite difficult for us to just leave before this time because our university was insisting that we should… have offline classes,” said Mtonga. “We’re in final year, we can’t just sit at home whilst our group mates are also going to classes. We wanted to go to school. That’s why we’re in this country: we want to learn.”

She added that, had the South African embassy issued a formal warning for them to evacuate, it may have placed more pressure on the university to let them attend online classes.

The embassy has approached the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science, as well as the Ministry of Health, to organise online classes for South African students, said Groenewald. However, they did not issue an order to evacuate.

ukraine war russia students sa

A Ukrainian demonstrator protests outside Downing Street in London against the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. European governments reacted with widespread condemnation and vows of more sanctions. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

“We don’t normally do a travel advisory because, you know, it’s been very negative for South Africans in the past, but it is also a personal thing. You need to address your own situation,” said Groenewald. Rather, the embassy encouraged South Africans to remain aware of the situation in their regions and have back-up plans in case of a crisis.

There are students from around the world in Kharkiv, from countries including Iraq, Nigeria and India, said Mushwana. She estimates that there are between 30 and 50 South African students in the city.

“Students don’t know what to do, even students from other countries,” she said. “We’re discussing in our school groups, ‘Where are you guys? What are you doing now? Have you left? Where are you?’ 

“We’re trying to group ourselves, to get students that are alone or staying alone, we’re trying to get them to be in groups. That’s what we’re trying to do. But everybody’s panicking.” DM

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