While much of the world has rallied to support Ukraine as it comes under fire from Russia, South Africans who are fleeing the country have shared accounts of alleged discrimination they say they have suffered at the hands of Ukraine soldiers and border post officials.
Fortunately three exceptional South African women have rallied together to create a WhatsApp group and a Facebook page to assist South Africans through this crisis. Speaking to SAPeople on Sunday, both Hayley Reichert (based in the UK) and Lorraine Blauw (based in the Netherlands) were tearful and heartbroken after days of listening to horror stories, galvanising support and liaising with ambassadors from several countries. Tomorrow they have arranged for trauma counsellors to speak with some of the South Africans trying to escape Ukraine who have suffered harrowing experiences. The following information was supplied by Hayley and Lorraine from what they’ve been told by South Africans at the borders, and the video messages they’ve watched.
It appears that at the border, Ukrainian citizens and foreigners are being separated, perhaps in a bid to deal with the different passports more efficiently (similarly to international airports). However, South Africans in the queues claim that it’s more than that and that Ukraine citizens are being prioritised to cross the border first. Unfortunately it appears that embassy representatives for the various African countries are not present at the border posts to facilitate their citizens’ evacuations.
Even on the way to the borders, black students have told of how they have been allegedly pulled off trains and buses, and made to walk to the border posts as seats are reserved for Ukrainians. One student says she was roughly pulled out of a queue by her hair. Many walked for miles, some for over 15 hours. (Thousands of Ukrainians have also walked the same distances, and more.) Others have spoken about being beaten by soldiers, and the terror of being herded at gunpoint.
— South Africa People – SAPeople.com (@sapeople) February 27, 2022
In another video, gunshots can be heard going off as students rush for cover.
Many SA students say they have waited for three days, some longer, to cross the border… watching as Ukrainians are allowed to sleep in tented shelters while they are left, freezing cold in the rain and snow, outdoors. Even across the border, the South Africans claim that while Ukrainians are met with food parcels and hugs, they are ostracised. They say it is because of their skin colour, because a white male Afrikaans student was able to catch a bus to the border. (It is possible that because his skin colour matched that of most Ukrainians nobody realised he was a foreigner.)
South Africans say their passports have been seized at times, and that while Ukrainians have been able to flow across the borders, they have been blocked.
One South African student alleges that “Ukrainian soldiers are allowing Africans and Indians to cross over the Ukrainian borders into the “No man’s land” between the borders” at Medyka (Poland), but once between the two borders, these people are stuck and unsure when they’ll get through. “Students at Medyka border have no shelter (that is reserved for Ukrainians only) – it started to snow, no food, no electricity to recharge phones, no water.” She says if they try to cross back to Ukraine to go to Lviv, they are “chased back at gunpoint”.
These South African students have been living in the Ukraine with valid visas, and are now desperate to return to South Africa. They each have letters from the Embassies granting them permission to evacuate into the neighbouring countries.
Thousands of African students seek out universities and colleges in the Ukraine, attracted by its great technical and medical schools… and relatively low fees. In fact African students make up 20% of Ukraine’s international students, according to DW. Most students originate from Morocco (8,000), Nigeria (4,000) and Egypt (3,500), says The Nation.
Some social media users have pointed out that it is a volatile situation at the moment with emotions and tensions running high; and that the fact that so many students from Africa choose to study in the Ukraine shows it does not discriminate; and that if Russia had not invaded these students would still be studying in Ukraine.
One of the first headlines about the alleged discrimination against black students was published by Russian media outlet RT, and several social media users have cautioned that “Russia is trying to fan the flame for anti-Ukrainian sentiment and will use anything to do it”.
Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs told Nigeria’s Minister that the “problem is the result of chaos on the border and check points leading to them”. The Ukrainian Minister said border guards have been instructed to allow all foreigners to leave, and promised to investigate.
South Africans should “get the f*ck out now”
According to Hayley, South Africans in the Ukraine must get out now. She says “excuse my French – they need to get the f*ck out of there, things are escalating.”
She says: “South Africans need to contact us if they’re stuck there. They cannot sit and wait and think ‘we’ll just wait it out, and see how it goes’.
Hayley, Lorraine and Kim Kur (from Community Circle SA) have set up a South Africans Ukraine Crisis FB page for both South Africans in the Ukraine, and those in Europe who are able to accommodate them… but they desperately need media and corporates to get involved, to raise money, to help the South Africans who are stuck.
“Please, we are trying. We are just three ordinary South Africans dropping everything, we’re working around the clock, and yeah we need support…” she says.
Through tears, Hayley says: “We have South Africans that are stuck and we don’t know if or when they are going to be able to get out. That is people mainly on the eastern side.
I have a South African who is married to a Ukranian who has been monitoring the situation hour by hour and she has had to make the difficult decision to take her three children, and leave her Ukranian husband behind; and travel with her Ukranian sister-, mother- and father-in-law.
“We are trying to support them to get safe passage to South Africa. Her eldest child is Type 1 insulant-dependent diabetic and she has a three-month old baby with her.
“Our girls at Medyka (Poland border post) have had a really rough ordeal. There’s two girls and another girl who’s a little further behind them in the queue and there was a South African male. He has turned back to Lviv. There was a lady (at another) border post – they were not allowing people through on foot. Somebody very kindly offered her space in their car. I haven’t got an update.”
The stories are endless. A South African in Kyiv who’s holed up in his apartment with his four dogs, another who is in a bunker with his Ukrainian wife and four-year-old.
Hayley says: “I do believe that DIRCO are trying… I’ve been on the phone to the Ambassadors – to Poland, Hungary and Ukraine – they are trying. But obviously because of the situation, there is only so much that they can do and obviously their counterparts in the Ukraine embassies etc. are obviously dealing with all different nationalities at the moment, things are difficult.”
According to Hayley, Ukrainian police have been “kicking, beating, tasering African nationals”.
Support for South Africans is needed in Hungary and Poland especially. The Romanian border is closed to South Africans, says Hayley; and nobody can move at Odessa. “At the moment their best option is… go into Hungary.”
She says: “We are pleading with every single South African in Poland, Hungary, Romania to please assist, opening their homes to our South Africans.” Already South Africans in Germany, France, Denmark and the UK have offered homes and support.
Visit South Africans Ukraine Crisis FB page
WATCH South Africans allege discrimination at border between Ukraine and Poland
Twenty-four Jamaican students who yesterday arrived in L'viv, Ukraine from Kharkiv by train are now forced to walk 20 kilometres to Poland. Foreign Affairs Minister @kaminajsmith says the bus that was carrying the students to Poland was blocked by angry people. More details soon. pic.twitter.com/FANH1bwgWB
— Jamaica Gleaner (@JamaicaGleaner) February 27, 2022
It is not only South Africans that are having evacuation issues:
Hearing UK ambassador in Lviv is “doing a fantastic job” is of precious little use to my constituent’s elderly grandmother who’s been granted visa but told to travel from Kiev to Lviv to collect it. That’s impossible!
Come on @FCDOGovUK @ukhomeoffice sort it out pic.twitter.com/0hr8Ih3CFy
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) February 28, 2022
Rallies are being held around the world: https://www.stopputin.net
WATCH Ukrainian woman offers sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers…
Remember I said I had a feeling we were alone a couple of days ago? Well, now we in Ukraine feel the whole world supports us. EU provides jets, SWIFT cut, Anonymous fighting for us. Poland, Romania shelter Ukrainians, provide aid, weapons. Even Hungary provides fuel! Heartwarming
— Nika Melkozerova (@NikaMelkozerova) February 27, 2022
"Zelensky dialed into the meeting…with a bracing appeal that left some of the world-weary politicians with watery eyes…Just that quickly, the Ukrainian president’s personal appeal overwhelmed European leaders’ resistance to imposing measures" https://t.co/cbnhllOZgV
— Kim Zetter (@KimZetter) February 27, 2022