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Relief for some as African students evacuated from Ukraine’s Sumy

As a parent with a child trapped thousands of miles away in war-ravaged Ukraine, the last time Elizabeth Murimwa had a good night’s sleep was before the invasion of the country.

One convoy of about 35 buses carrying some 700-800 students opted to go to the Hungarian border rather than the Polish border. Photo: iStock

At least one student from India is known to have died during the invasion

For the Zimbabwean national who lives and works in South Africa, the past two weeks have been a cause of constant fear for the fate of her daughter Maud Murimwa, a fifth year medical student at Sumy State University in Eastern Ukraine. She had only about four months to completion of her studies before the war began.

It got worse when bombing of the region intensified last week, and Elizabeth who could intermittently get hold of her daughter through messaging application WhatsApp, started feeling like she was physically in the war zone herself.

“The last time I talked to Maud was in the morning, then she was hurrying back to the bomb shelters after going out to her hostels to get a few essentials,” a distressed Elizabeth told The PIE News on the afternoon of Saturday, March 5.

When The PIE talked to her again on Tuesday evening after two days of being unable to find time to share the latest from her daughter and other students whose rescue efforts she was monitoring and helping coordinate, she sounded much more at ease and relieved.

“Clearing evacuees into Poland is taking too long”

African students at the university were finally being evacuated and had left the institution in a convoy of about 35 buses, headed for the town of Poltava with the hope of finally making it to the border the country shares with Hungary. The buses she said were carrying 700-800 students, including Indian students.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, with whom she was in contact as a coordinator of a group of 257 African parents, some living in the UK, had told her they had opted for the Hungarian border due to congestion and the sheer number of people fleeing the country through the Polish crossing.

However, she was concerned that four African students who were not around the university hostels at the time of the rescue had been left behind, and their whereabouts was not clear.

“We are glad that the situation is finally easing, but clearing evacuees into Poland is taking too long. We have also received reports that authorities there were prioritising Ukraine and European citizens, so they opted for the Hungarian border,” she said.

Media reports confirmed news of successful evacuations from Sumy on Tuesday, and were set to continue on Wednesday, March 9.

One Nigerian veterinary student in the city described the situation for the BBC. It was possible to leave Sumy but it is extremely risky and expensive with some drivers charging between $2,000 and $5,000 (£1,500 and £3,800), he wrote. The student has now been safely evacuated.

Elizabeth was cautious that the ICRC convoys might take two days before they reached the safety of Hungary. It would take about 15 hours from Poltava to Lviv and another two to four hours to Uzhhorod and an additional two hours to the Hungarian border all in the west of Ukraine, she said.

Earlier as African governments dithered in rescuing their nations from the country, the group led by Elizabeth had written a memorandum to the African Union, pleading for help in getting the students out of Ukraine.

“We would like to bring to your attention that there are about 900 African students trapped in Sumy state, which is in the East of Ukraine and 60kms from the Russian border. The students cannot leave as the routes linking them to Kyiv and Kharkiv were destroyed and are therefore impassable,” they stated.

“Our main appeal as parents is to get our children evacuated”

“Our main appeal as parents is to get our children evacuated, currently, they are at risk of becoming collateral damage in a war they know nothing about. Negative racist sentiments have already been displayed and they are scared and in bunkers three quarters of the day.

“The Indian government is already negotiating for its citizens hence we would like to request help from our different governments.”

They added in the memo also copied to the European Union, United Nations Refugees Agency and the ICRC among other organisations.

Negative racist sentiments had already been displayed and due to bombing terrified students were spending up to three quarters of a day in bunkers in the midst of gunfire.

“We would love to go back home, we can’t, the airports are closed, we are evacuating from city to city and trying to leave the country on foot or by car. As foreigners in this country, we do not know what will happen next but God will never leave us, not now,” Vukile Dlamini, a South African student lamented on twitter February 24.

On student from Nigeria previously told The PIE that only on March 1 did their medical university inform international students that they could return home.

At least one student from India is known to have died during the invasion. An employee of Kharkiv National Medical University has also spoken of her pride at the students that were “in the shelters, in the subway stations, they are giving the help and support to the citizens of our city”.

Nearly 20,000 African students were enrolled in Ukrainian universities at the time of the invasion by Russia, majority of them from Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt.

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