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Desperate dash for safety as SA students flee Ukraine war zone

Youngsters describe heartbreaking scenes, panic — and zero help from SA

“I’m alive, a walking corpse, a body with no soul left. My eyes are tired of crying, but finally I’m feeling safe.”

Ansuria Moodley, a final-year medical student in the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, described the hell she and three other medical students endured as they fled the war-ravaged country this week. 

The South African student said she’s a wreck, but her story has a happy ending as she’s made it safely to Slovakia, crossing the border on foot.  

Moodley had been living in a small apartment in Dnipro and was scheduled to graduate as a medical doctor in a few months,  when the Russian invasion began on February 24. 

After agonising about whether to hunker down or try to flee the country, Moodley, her friend Sundeep Singh from India, and two other South African students, known only as Tumi and  Mahommed, banded together last Saturday night to try to get out of Ukraine. 

During their journey they witnessed the war first hand.

First you are hit by fear. They make people scared and you cannot think and so then panic sets in. And there’s news all around you, and people tell you things and lie to you and you lose people and you see terribly sad things and eventually all communication breaks down

Ansuria Moodley, SA medical student in Ukraine

“First you are hit by fear. They make people scared and you cannot think and so then panic sets in. And there’s news all around you, and people tell you things and lie to you and you lose people and you see terribly sad things and eventually all communication breaks down.”

The group of four left Dnipro late on Saturday after waiting many hours for a train on platforms where the throng of people grew hour by hour.

All the announcements were in Ukrainian, but luckily Sundeep could understand what was going on.  “Sundeep speaks Russian and language is what saved us.”

They had their Jack Russell, Mowgli, with them. “Ukrainians just love dogs on another level. So that all helped,” Moodley said.

“Eventually when the train arrived, Tumi  and I looked at each other and ran for the last coach. The Ukranians were blocking foreigners and pulling them off, but she ran with our dog and I ran with the bags and we piled on and turned to pull Mahommed in.

“People outside were trying to drag him away, but I grabbed his shoulder and we pulled him in.”

The four students huddled in the packed train on what was supposed to be a 13-hour trip to Uzhhorod, near the border 1,200km away. 

Dustbin bags covered the windows and the passengers were ordered not to switch on any kind of light. The conductor tried to keep order on the train, and eventually wept as she pleaded with locals to be kind to foreigners.

“That train travelled so slowly — I could probably have walked faster. We just had to sit in the dark. We were near a surgeon who had two little kids of four and two who just cried because they were scared in the dark and wanted to get off. We couldn’t breathe.”

The train was packed to capacity with people sleeping in the toilets and over the couplings between carriages. The journey took more than 24 hours.

Eventually they arrived in Uzhhorod, where they again encountered chaos. 

They heard more horror stories, witnessed shootings and met up with people who were lost and alone. 

On Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukrainian soldiers of using civilians as human shields.

Moodley said she witnessed first-hand  Ukrainian soldiers and police using black and Indian people as human shields while they were under attack by Russians, shouting that their lives meant nothing.  

“They were using black people as human shields,” she said. 

The AU reacted to accusations of racism in Ukraine on Monday: “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable, dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” it said in a statement.

A video widely shared on social media showed a Nigerian woman with her young baby being forcibly made to give up her seat to another person.  

But some foreigners said they received a warm welcome in neighbouring countries, such as Moldova, Hungary and Romania, and a relatively smooth transit.

After eventually finding a hostel and being turned away because they had a dog, the four students headed for a sports hall where they were finally able to stop and rest. And then they walked to Slovakia.

“That border post was just a free-for-all. No passports, nothing to buy even if you had money. 

“We couldn’t understand the language and eventually we found people from an NGO. I still have no idea who helped us or why, but we were brought here to this little apartment where we are safe,” Moodley said.

When asked what  had upset her the most, Moodley broke down and wept.

“The children. So many children. All over. Forced out of their homes, many of them just with their mothers, so confused and scared,” she said.South African medical student in Ukraine, Ansuria Moodley.
Image: Supplied

“What you see on TV or in the news is one thing. But to witness it in the flesh, to see first hand the suffering and you try to imagine what is going on in the minds of the people around you …  it gets overwhelming,” she sobbed.

She is haunted by the cries of the little children who were stuck on the long train journey with her. Repeating their pleas in Ukrainian and then translating to English, Moodley cried: “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

“What sticks in my mind is the family that was with us when we walked across the border. A father in a wheelchair, a kid and a dog. And that dog is their life and the only reason that little boy smiles. These are people whose lives have been shattered and they have nowhere to go,” Moodley said.

Her two South African friends made their way to Budapest in Hungary and were due to fly home.

“I have finally stopped crying,” she said. She is  staying in a small apartment next to a photographic studio with Singh.

Though she is facing pressure to come home to her family, she is determined to stay in Europe until she is qualified. “Somehow I am going to be a doctor.”

On Saturday, after feeling slightly recovered and a little less traumatised, Moodley and Singh headed out of their small apartment in Slovakia to do the one thing they felt would make them feel good: sign up to do volunteer refugee work.

“It’s the only thing we can do right now that will help.”

Meanwhile, a South African television news producer and her four crew members have been evacuated from Ukraine after two of them were shot by a suspected Russian “death squad”.

Dominique van Heerden, who works for Sky News, was in a car with her colleagues — including chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay — when they came under fire after unsuccessfully trying to visit the town of Bucha near Kyiv.

Dramatic footage from Sky shows the attack.

The Guardian reported that Ramsay was shot in the lower back and camera operator Richie Mockler took two rounds in his body armour.

Van Heerden’s LinkedIn profile says she was born and raised in SA before moving to London in 2003.

“I do recall wondering if my death was going to be painful,” Ramsay said, recounting the moments before he was shot. “But what amazed me was that [being shot] didn’t hurt that bad. It was more like being punched, really. 

“This war gets worse by the day,” he added.

Mandisa Malindisa, 25, a fourth-year medical student at the university in Kharkiv, arrived home in Johannesburg on Friday after escaping to Hungary. 

She is among a group of students  who said they received no support from the South African government.

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She claimed she knew of four South Africans who were still stranded in Hungary without money to fly home. 

Another medical student who fled Ukraine also told the Sunday Times South African students had to fend for themselves.

The 24-year-old, who did not want to be named for fear of jeopardising funding for her studies,  was in the fifth and penultimate year of her medical degree at a university in Kharkiv when the Russian troops rolled in last week.

Unlike other South African students, she said her group  didn’t experience racism when they fled Ukraine. She and two black friends crossed into Hungary at the Uzhhorod border where they were treated the same as everyone else. “We were the first three South Africans into Hungary.”

They went straight to the South African embassy in Budapest and got “zero” useful help.

She and other students sheltered the first night in a subway station, then went to the railway station the next day to get on a train.

“I was lucky, I had time to pack a bag. Others had only the clothes on their backs.”

When a train for evacuees finally arrived mid-afternoon, there was “chaos”.

“We had to squash  into the last carriage of the train. People were pushing and shoving to get on. I had my hair pulled, my eyes gouged … it was a terrible experience. We were hanging on to the doors, and all the time there were bombs going off. Luckily the stampede eased and I was able to push myself on. I was one of the last people on.”

There followed a 24-hour train ride across more than 1,000km, much of it spent in a four-person compartment into which nine people had squeezed. “It was horrible. The bathrooms …”

Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the department of international relations & co-operation, said he sympathised with  the plight of students but government policy was that South African missions abroad do not offer financial help to those in distress, and can only play a facilitating role. “There’s no budget for it, and that is not unique to SA.”

Monyela said some South African diplomats in Poland had, “from their own pockets”, helped evacuees with “accommodation, food and even clothes”.  The diplomats had also gone to the border to ensure there was no racial discrimination against South Africans.

Speaking from Budapest yesterday, SA’s ambassador to Kyiv, André Groenewald, said out of about 50 South Africans, 10 were still driving to safety.

“We are working together with the Ukrainian ambassador to make sure that we don’t have any stumbling blocks.”

UN High Commission for Refugees representative to SA Leonard Zulu said  1.2-million refugees had left Ukraine for neighbouring countries. “We are assisting everyone regardless of their nationality, race or creed who are in need of protection.”  

–Sunday Times



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