“We literally woke up to the sound of the bombs, we could hear them from our apartment – that’s what woke us up. We are 30 minutes from the border where these attacks are taking place. We don’t feel safe at all.
These were among the first words spoken by South African medical student Kurhula Mushwana when Daily Maverick contacted her on Thursday. Mushwana, along with fellow medical students Charmaine Mnisi and Vutlhari Mtonga, lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine, not far from the Russian border.
No planes travel to and from Ukraine, Mushwana said, nor are there any trains to ferry them to towns in safer areas.
“We don’t agree,” Mushwana stressed. “We really feel like we’re stuck, and we really want someone to hear us out so the government or someone like that can try to help us at this point.”
The town had been fairly quiet before the invasion, Mtonga said. While there was concern about Russian troops gathering at the border, people tried to live their lives as normally as possible. Waking up to the sound of bombs and missiles landing nearby was a shock.
“The fact is that there are explosions and bombs happening in different places in Ukraine. It’s not like we can pack our bags now and decide to go to a particular area,” Mtonga said.
“At every stop we have to go through, especially in the big city, Kyiv, there are also bomb attacks. So it’s almost like we don’t know where we’re supposed to go at this point.
The South African Ambassador to Ukraine, Andre Groenewald, has been in contact with the students, asking them for their passport details to obtain Polish visas for them.
A student registry was initially developed during the Covid-19 pandemic to enable the embassy to evacuate and assist South Africans during this crisis, Groenewald said. With the situation “heating up” in Ukraine, this system is being revived.
“We had discussions with the Polish Ambassador to Ukraine and he agreed to provide – if we provide the names and passport numbers, as well as the position that [the students] intend to cross – that they are going to share this with their border guards or border staff, then we can get them across the border.
Groenewald said he had discussions with the Romanian ambassador to have students apply for visas at Romanian border crossings.
However, Mnisi stressed that even if they receive Polish visas, she and her comrades cannot afford to reach the border, or even leave Kharkiv.
“It’s a form of assistance, but it’s not assistance… because what’s the point of having a visa if you can’t even go? she asked.
Groenewald recognized the transportation difficulties. Many trains and public service buses have stopped for safety reasons, a situation he described as “complicated”. At this stage, however, the Embassy does not provide transportation assistance.
“Hopefully there might be some sort of window of opportunity where some of the transportation will work again,” he said. “It’s hard to say how this will evolve, but we’re hoping that at some point at least there will be some sort of opening for people to actually get out of really big conflict zones if they’re still stuck in those -this.”
In the meantime, embassy employees have shared their contact numbers with South Africans in Ukraine and continue to update them with information through the embassy’s Facebook page, Groenewald said.
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 locally recruited staff.
“We will do whatever it takes, whatever is within our power or means, we will do for the South Africans and other colleagues and Africans who are here who have no representation,” said Greenwald.
Nigerian and South African embassies have tried to help Africans in Ukraine who have no representation in the region, he said. This includes students from Eswatini and Namibia.
While students in Kharkiv stressed that they appreciated the ambassador’s efforts to keep them informed, that came as little comfort to a group of people stranded in an increasingly volatile area.
Along with the lack of transport, banks have closed and long queues have formed outside ATMs and shops as people try to stock up on water, alcohol and food, between others, Mushwana said.
There are fears that Kharkiv residents will be cut off from internet, water and electricity as the invasion progresses. The latter is of particular concern, as the electricity protects against the cold in the region.
“Ukraine reaches temperatures of -25 to -30˚ in winter. At this time, we are slowly entering our spring period. So it is a bit warmer, however, it is still very cold. We need the heating system,” Mushwana explained.
University activities and classes were suspended on Thursday. The continued operation of the university until then was part of the reason why South African students had not yet left Ukraine, Mtonga said.
“It was quite difficult for us to leave before that time because our university was insisting that we had to…have classes offline,” Mtonga said. “We are in our final year, we cannot sit at home while our group mates also go to class. We wanted to go to school. This is why we are in this country: we want to learn.
She added that if the South African embassy had issued a formal warning asking them to evacuate, it might have put more pressure on the university to let them take online courses.
The embassy has approached the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science, as well as the Ministry of Health, to organize online courses for South African students, Groenewald said. However, they did not issue an evacuation order.
“We don’t normally do travel advisories because, you know, it’s been very negative for South Africans in the past, but that’s also a personal thing. You have to sort out your own situation,” Groenewald said. The embassy instead encouraged South Africans to stay aware of the situation in their areas and have contingency plans in case of a crisis.
There are students from all over the world in Kharkiv, from countries like Iraq, Nigeria and India, Mushwana said. 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 talk in our school groups, ‘Where are you guys? What are you doing now? Have you left? Where are you?’
“We try to group together, to have students who are alone or who stay alone, we try to get them to group together. That’s what we’re trying to do. But everyone panics. DM