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‘It’s almost apocalyptic’ – SA ambassador in Kyiv describes ‘human tragedy’ in Ukraine

  • South Africa’s ambassador to Ukraine, André Groenewald, has spoken of the difficulty in assisting citizens wishing to leave the country.
  • With his family, he has remained in Kyiv, which, as he spoke with News24, was reportedly close to being attacked by Russian forces.
  • Groenewald described the current situation as surreal, but was determined to remain to fulfil his duty. 

Air raid sirens pierced the icy cold early on Friday morning in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, a day after Russia launched an unprovoked attack on the country after months of warnings from the West over imminent invasion.

People in Kyiv woke early on Thursday morning to loud explosions which started, according to South Africa’s ambassador to the Ukraine, André Groenewald, a day of chaos amid “almost Apocalyptic” scenes.

“It is absolutely surreal,” he told News24 on Friday morning, as reports continued to emerge that Russian forces were drawing closer to the capital.

The sirens had periodically sounded in the capital since just before dawn on Thursday, but far more ominously, Groenewald said, was the sound of explosions in the distance as he hunkered down with his family in their official residence.

He had gone to work at the South African embassy on Thursday and described the eerie quiet of the roads, usually gridlocked, on his commute. Many Ukrainians he said, had probably left the capital for their dachas outside the city.

On Thursday night, Groenewald, his wife and three teenage sons slept in the basement of their house.

“We are sitting in our house, hearing explosions. I am getting messages from journalists and Ukrainians with pictures they are taking from in their homes of helicopters flying overhead,” he said.

“It’s almost apocalyptic; it’s very serious.”

Throughout the day, thousands attempted to flee the country, hundreds more gathered in underground metro stations, hoping the layers of concrete would provide protection against Russian artillery.

Groenewald himself was nursing doubts over whether he had missed the window to leave.

“But what gives me hope is that we are hearing that they are not hitting civilian targets. Our official residence is in a small valley which I hope will offer some protection,” Groenewald said.

“We are sort of on the border between a very old part of the city and a tourist part, near a church. President Putin, I understand, has a lot of respect for religion, and churches aren’t being attacked,” he said.

Russian movement

Reports flooded in from around the country on Thursday – east, south and west – of Russian forces attacking military installations, including airbases. By late Thursday evening, news broke that Russia had seized control of the Chernobyl power plant.

It’s an hour and a half drive from Kyiv to Chernobyl, the nuclear power station that experienced a meltdown in April 1986. As a result, radioactive material spewed into the air and a containment structure was built over the damaged reactor to prevent further radiation from spilling out into the environment.

“I said to my family it makes you think about all the history you have read about people like Churchill and how they must have felt to make the decisions around continuing to fight, and you think well if these guys stop fighting maybe it would be better, but will it really be better in the long run? It’s unbelievable. It’s a tragedy at every human level,” Groenewald said.

As a diplomatic official, however, Groenewald said he had a duty to remain. He estimated that if there were 250 South Africans in Ukraine, he would be surprised. VideoWATCH | Attack on Ukraine: ‘It’s the most terrible thing that has happened in my life’Ukraine citizen Alyona Churilova woke to the noise of explosions on Thursday morning as Russian troops invaded her country, bombing airports in Kyiv. Churilova shares her ordeal with News24.

Of these, around 100 were students who mostly came to Ukraine to study medicine.

But he said, South Africans did not always register at the embassy after arriving in the country, making it almost impossible to know for sure how many people were there. Students he had been in contact with were making their way to Poland, a NATO member country, who he said was receiving refugees.

He praised Poland for their actions in allowing refugees to cross into the country. The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Thursday that as many as five million people could be displaced.

“There is not much we can do at this stage, because there aren’t any evacuation plans or assets that South Africa has here in this country, so what we have been doing is saying to people ‘if you can get out, do so’. This morning, I have heard that there are possibilities of people getting out on trains,” he said.

Absolute chaos

He spent most of Thursday collating lists of people’s names and passport numbers, which he would pass on to the Polish ambassador who would, in turn, make the lists available to border guards.

What had further complicated the task, he said, was that only South Africa and Nigeria had embassies in Ukraine, meaning he was trying to help citizens of many other sub-Saharan countries as well. On Thursday night, he had sent a list of around 110 people to the Polish ambassador.

“We have been trying to organise buses, but there aren’t even any bus drivers, they have also fled. So where will you get a bus? And then you ask them to make a list of how many they are, so we can try and see how big the bus must be, but they can’t, its absolute chaos,” Groenewald said.

“And I was saying to my family this morning, what if I drove the bus and took it to the university and told our students to meet there, then there are 10 South Africans and 500 people from other countries, and then what do I do? It’s just not as if you can run into places and go and do things, it has to be coordinated, and what if I am driving this big bus and some guy shoots it to pieces. It’s not easy,” he said.

“It’s more a facilitation role than a role providing buses or airplanes. Because nobody can do it at the moment. The airspace is closed and there is a curfew at night. It’s really a war situation,” he added.

“The other thing that helps is that this morning the Polish said people can cross the border, and they are now ready for the refugees and there will be a hot plate of food for them. Those are the things, in the current circumstances which… the moment you have hope, then you can move ahead. I get the feeling that there is a bit of that now, and that there are countries in the vicinity that can help. And I must say, it’s unbelievable of Poland, they are right here,” he said.

“It’s these kinds of things, when you hear about it and when the sun comes up in the morning, because you know in the darkness of night it’s difficult.”

Shortly after speaking with News24, Groenewald said he would talk to other ambassadors and set about locating all the embassy staff. One staff member he said had managed to leave Kyiv and reached a small town he believed to be safe, but still had to spend the night in a bunker.

“This morning we will get more information about what is really going on and how close the Russians are,” he said.

“That this will have a worldwide impact is certain. The world has changed,” he said.

Explosions were heard over Kyiv on Friday morning, and Ukrainian military claimed to have shot down a Russian aircraft over the capital. At least 137 Ukrainian soldiers have died so far, with Ukraine claiming it had shot down multiple Russian aircraft and taken Russian soldiers prisoner.

It appeared that Ukraine would not receive any direct military support in the country, however, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said alliance forces were being bolstered in countries such as Germany and Poland in an attempt to dissuade Russia from sending troops into NATO countries bordering Ukraine.

The US, UK and EU countries announced a range of sanctions against Russian nationals and companies on Thursday, with the aim of hobbling the Russian economy in the short and long term.




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