by Brandon Nel
Cape Town - A Cape Town man has described his harrowing escape, walking five days with little food in the icy cold to the Slovakian border in a bid to flee war-torn Ukraine with hundreds and thousands of refugees.
On Saturday night, AFP reported that Russia resumed its offensive after a partial ceasefire earlier in the day for civilians to leave two Ukrainian cities, Mariupol and Volnovakha, following the opening of a humanitarian corridor as attacks continued in other parts of the country.
The UN has reported that at least one million civilians have left Ukraine since February 24. The flight to freedom has come with added obstacles for some African nationals.
Reuters reported on accounts from Nigerian students who claimed they were being removed from trains by Ukrainian soldiers, informing them that they were only allowing pregnant women to leave the city of Lviv to the Polish border.
The African Union, along with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, condemned the ill-treatment of Africans trying to leave the country.
“There have been disturbing reports of black people and people of colour, being denied seats in buses evacuating refugees, and turned away from the Polish border,” said the foundation’s Mandlenkosi Dakada yesterday.
Strand resident Johan Nel was frustrated when he was turned away from the Polish border and was forced to make the rest of the journey on foot to the Slovakian border post.
The 25-year-old told Weekend Argus he decided to leave his apartment in the capital city of Kiev three days after military strikes began last Thursday.
“I simply had to flee, I had no other choice,” he explained.
Nel, an English teacher who had been in the country for only three months, said he began hatching a plan on how to get out safely.
“I phoned my mom and said I’m fleeing to Poland.”
He then paid around $1 000 (more than R15000) for a private taxi to the Polish border.
“When I arrived, it was a total sh*t show.”
Nel said once at the border post, he was met with scenes of chaos where thousands of people from Ukraine were trying desperately to get across.
After waiting for hours in long lines he was told that only Ukrainian women and children were being allowed to cross the border.
“I was like, f*ck, cause I already dished out all my food and water to those in need,” he added.
“The streets are cold, everything is under a blanket of snow.”
With only bare necessities and valuables like his passport, he decided to trek to the Slovakian border.
Nel said he was also questioned by Ukrainian officials, who thought he was a native Russian.
“Along the way I carried the bags of other civilians, my back was f**ked,” he said.
“It took some serious endurance, much more survival skills than Bear Grylls … it toyed with my mental health more than you can ever imagine.
Nel said his feet were “full of blisters” and his hands “beyond numb”.
“You would think that in circumstances like this you would worry about yourself and no one but yourself. But as you pass old men and women, single moms and children that need serious help and you simply cannot ignore that.”
Finally, after a hellish 120 hours, Nel arrived at the Slovakian border, where he briefly stayed with a South African man who is married to a Hungarian national in Budapest. He was grateful for a hot shower, a warm meal and some rest.
Nel said he took a train to Amsterdam, where he planned to take a KLM flight to Johannesburg before coming home to Cape Town.
“I will visit my brother for three days in Johannesburg,” he said.
“Then I’ll go back to Cape Town, to see the rest of my family.”
“I have the utmost respect for every single refugee that has had to flee a war zone to be safe, whether that be in WWI, WWII, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria or Ukraine,” Nel said.
For father Christo de Jager, from Brackenfell, to get his two daughters out of Ukraine, was a rough ordeal.
His daughters, Ira, 18, and Katya, 23, both students, were in Poltava, Ukraine on the day of the Russian invasion and it took them four days to escape to safety. “I worry so much. I’m not sleeping at all,” he said.
“They jumped in their Toyota Yaris and travelled via Moldova and Romania to get to Germany. At least my girls are safe now,” a relieved De Jager said.
South Africa’s ambassador to Ukraine André Groenewald said there were still citizens stranded in the country. “They, no more than 10, are in bunkers and lying low,” he said.
Groenewald said of two of them were from Cape Town.
While all eyes continue to be on Ukraine and the fallout of the conflict, South Africa’s stance on the saga has not been without controversy.
The removal of Russia’s channel, Russia Today, from DStv, earned the ire of the ANC and other parties including the EFF and Cope, who demanded answers from Multichoice on how it came to this decision.
In a statement yesterday the ANC’s Pule Mabe said the party believed that the removal amounted to censorship which occurred during the country’s Human Rights month.
The Russian Embassy in South Africa also took to social media yesterday to convey its appreciation of messages of support received. “We have received a great number of letters of solidarity from South Africans, both individuals and organisations,” read the message,“ read the statement.
In a bizarre twist, Minister for Transport and ANC NEC member Fikile Mbalula - shortly after retweeting the Russian Embassy’s message tweeted that he had “just landed in Ukraine”. But insiders from the Department of International Relations dismissed this as false and said Mbalula was still in the country and it was in bad taste to joke about a war. Calls to Mbalula went unanswered.