South Africa

WAR IN EUROPE

South Africans fleeing Ukraine encounter physical threats, racism and confusing information

From left: Crowds of people wait for a train to the Hungarian/Ukrainian border in Uzhhorod, on Sunday, 27 February, in Kharkiv to Lviv. (Photo: Supplied / Nkateko Blessing Muyimane) | Pivdennyy Vokzal, Kharkiv’s main railway station, on Saturday, 26 February. (Photo: Supplied / Mandisa Sthabile Malindisa) | A missile blocks part of a road near Zakhysnykiv Ukrainy train station on Friday, 25 February, in Kharkiv. (Photo: Supplied / Nkateko Blessing Muyimane)

Since the onset of the Russian invasion in Ukraine on Thursday, 24 February, more than one million refugees have fled into neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania and Hungary. In their journeys to escape, some South Africans have grappled with physical threats, racial discrimination and conflicting information.

For South African nationals stranded in Ukraine after the sudden onset of the Russian invasion on 24 February, the past week has been filled with uncertainty and fear. Many have faced long journeys to find refuge in neighbouring countries such as Romania and Hungary. 

As of Thursday, it was estimated that more than one million people had fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, all while public transport systems in the region faced heavy disruptions because of ongoing Russian attacks.

On Friday, 25 February, a small group of South African medical students headed to the train station in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian town not far from the Russian border. They, like many others, were attempting to take advantage of a window of time in which trains were operating and able to take them to safer cities. 

“Thank God, at the station, they said that the train is free,” said Nkateko Blessing Muyimane, one of the students. “But now, of course, if something is free, you know how packed and chaotic it gets.” 

Amid the panic of individuals attempting to flee to safety, some turned to violence to ensure a place on the train, he said. One individual stood at the door with a knife, trying to keep others back while his friends boarded. 

“I remember also one of my friends… was so traumatised,” said Muyimane. “We were trying to get into the train. We had to push her in. She was holding on to the door and then one guy – because people want to get their family – so, one dad is punching on her hand trying to make her let go of the handle. And at one point, he bit her.” 

Muyimane and his fellow students were able to secure places on the train, travelling eight hours across the country to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.  

“We stopped in Kyiv, I think for maybe five hours, because they weren’t certain of the situation going further,” said Muyimane. “So, I think they got a notification that, ‘Okay, guys, stop the train, switch off the lights. Make sure that everybody’s quiet, close all the windows.’ ” 

It was hot in the darkened interior of the train, the close-packed passengers attempting to sleep the wait away. Muyimane recalled trying to assist with a crying baby. 

“Because we’re medical students, we were trying to fan the baby. We opened the window a little bit, we were like, ‘Fan the baby and blow cool air and sprinkle some water on the baby – try and do as much as you can’,” he said. 

Crossing the Hungarian border 

When they finally reached the border of Hungary, the students endured a six-hour wait in -6℃ weather. They claimed that while Hungarian border control offered food to white refugees during this time, it was withheld from black African groups. 

“When we got there, they were just allowing Ukrainians to go in. See, I’m sure we were like 150 black people just waiting outside, in between Hungary and Ukraine,” said Muyimane. 

“I ended up sleeping on the street because I had no strength any more, I literally said, ‘This is it,’” said Mandisa Sthabile Malindisa, another medical student. 

Daily Maverick contacted the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade about this report of racism at the border between Ukraine and Hungary. In response, their International Communications Office stated: “We categorically reject any insinuation of racism. Hungary provides assistance to refugees fleeing the war regardless of their nationality, and grants entry to all those from Ukraine who can prove their legal resident status in Ukraine.” 

Crowds at Peremoha metro station in Kharkiv on Friday, 25 February. (Photo: Supplied / Mandisa Sthabile Malindisa)

Broader issue of border racism 

Clayson Monyela, deputy director-general for public diplomacy in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said that there had been issues of racism against African people at the border between Ukraine and neighbouring countries. 

“[African people] were actually, you know, put in different queues or lanes, if you want to call them that, but also at the back. So, we had to intervene to ensure that our people are assisted to cross,” he said. 

While delivering a keynote address at the launch of South Africa’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor referenced reports that African students fleeing Ukraine and attempting to cross the border into Poland were being subjected to racism. People should not allow racism to be placed at the end of the queue in paying attention to human rights, she said.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, said foreign citizens fleeing Ukraine should be assisted equally – acknowledging, for the first time, the racial discrimination on the border as non-Ukrainians have attempted to flee the country. 

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways. Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem,” said Kuleba in a tweet.

Muyimane and his fellow students have since made it into Hungary, where they received support from a local resident in the form of a place to stay. Volunteers in Hungary were “kind and loving”, providing them with care packages, said Muyimane. A few students had booked return tickets to South Africa for Thursday evening. 

The students are concerned about their academic future, said Muyimane. Their university in Kharkiv has been destroyed, and along with it, access to their academic transcripts. Moreover, their flight from Ukraine has placed pressure on them financially. 

“This is literally the third time I’ve had to book [a flight home],” said Malindisa. “Tickets are R20,000. So basically, I lost R40,000. This is now my third ticket that I’ve booked, so basically, we’re on R60,000 now.” 

Muyimane expressed frustration at the lack of support from the South African government during their journey out of Ukraine, both in terms of financial assistance and a plan to exit the country. 

However, Monyela emphasised that the consular services provided by the South African government are non-financial. “That’s a policy, and… many countries in the world have a similar policy,” he said. 

Monyela expressed surprise that there were South African citizens who felt they had received minimal or unreliable information from the country’s embassy in fleeing Ukraine. 

He said it was difficult to assist those who had travelled to Ukraine without informing the Department of International Relations and Cooperation or registering on their database, as they did not know they were there. However, those who had registered were included in a WhatsApp group with the South African ambassador to Ukraine, André Groenewald, as well as Monyela. 

“Every [piece of] information at our disposal, André Groenewald is sharing that in that platform that we use to update and provide information to South Africans,” said Monyela. 

Before the Russian attacks in Ukraine, Groenewald had communicated with South Africans in the embassy’s database and advised them to leave Ukraine, said Monyela. 

“So, those that are still in that country would have chosen to stay, and therefore in that way, the consequences of that decision obviously would then be visited upon them. Having said that, we still have a responsibility to help those that are [caught up] now in this conflict,” he said. 

On 24 February, Groenewald told Daily Maverick that while South African citizens had not been asked to leave Ukraine in the lead-up to the invasion, they were advised to remain aware of the situation in their region and have backup plans in case of a crisis. 

Groenewald was evacuated from Ukraine on Tuesday evening, said Monyela.  

“We’ve only moved him out last night, because the situation was getting extremely dangerous for him,” said Monyela. “He was on the ground, dodging bombs and all these attacks, but we had said to him, stay there because the focus is on assisting South Africans to get out before you as diplomats can get out – because if you leave, they’ll be left with no one to assist them to move around.” 

Crossing the Romanian border 

Another South African resident in Ukraine, Estè Coetzee, was forced to flee the Ukrainian town of Odesa after four years of working there as an English teacher. On Friday night, she drove to a town near the Romanian border with friends. 

Coetzee said that her experience was complicated by conflicting reports as to what documentation she needed to cross the border. The South African embassy in Ukraine informed her that she could cross with only her passport. However, upon contacting the Romanian embassy in Pretoria, she was told that proper documentation and permission were required. 

“The problem was that we had very inconsistent and unreliable information about whether we are allowed to cross the borders, what documents we need, what needs to be done,” she said. 

Moreover, Coetzee claimed that in the three weeks before the invasion she had attempted to get hold of the South African embassy by email and phone to find out whether there was an emergency plan in place for South Africans, which there was not. 

“I’m very, very hot under the collar right now because I feel there should have been some sort of support, even if it was just a matter of an official place or an email address or a group where people could just check in and get information,” she said. 

Coetzee crossed the Romanian border on the afternoon of Saturday, 26 February, without documents, permission or confidence that she would be allowed through. 

“I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know exactly what is going on. At the moment, I’ve got a couple of lawyers finding out exactly what my status is in Romania,” she said. 

On the Romanian side of the border, volunteers were quick to assist refugees with food and supplies, said Coetzee. 

“There was just a mass of Romanian people handing out SIM cards and food and clothes, and volunteers who drove down from every part of Romania to drive people to whatever city, getting them accommodation. It was an unbelievable experience,” she said. 

“The people of Romania have been absolutely phenomenal.” DM

 

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  • Much as I sympathise with any South African caught in this invidious position the cynic in me is waiting for an official government statement to the effect that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was entirely supported and justified to rid the Ukraine of its racist tendencies. After all, Putin has identified a neo-Nazi element amongst the Ukrainians. Maybe the SAHRC are already planning their visit with Buang Jones leading the charge.

    • Yes … so racist was the Ukrainian regime that it hosted not only hundreds of African students from across our continent, but thousands from Asia… especially from Modhi’s hindutva India ! No wonder they ‘abstained’ ! Talk about having your cake and eating it … or is it putting your foot in it ? !

  • Remarkable … the SA ambassador to Ukraine is dodging bombs falling around him … while in SA (it is reported) the ANC rep Cameron Dugmore to a Russian embassy ‘party’ is enjoying himself, instead of putting the ambassador and his gov. on notice ! The depravity level in the ruling party and its RET faction is stupendous and preposterous.

  • The conflicting reports Coetzee refers to, are perfectly ‘understandable’ against the background of Putin publicly in the media, stating for weeks that he had no INTENTION of invading Ukraine ! And most people/countries fell for that blatant LIE while the situation/forces on the ground said otherwise. Believing the utterances of psychopaths is a dangerous game ! Just ask those (sorry they can’t reply) who have been novichoked .

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